Mother’s ruins

There’s something about abandoned buildings and dereliction. These old dusty places just ooze allure.

This outstanding blog with images, of an abandoned and ruined isolation Riverside hospital on North Brother Island, New York City, once home of Typhoid Mary, made me feel like I was taking a nose around with the writer – and it reminded me how much I love exploring old ruins.

Take a look The photographs are excellent, revealing paraphernalia which was just abandoned. It’s fascinating.

Maybe this interest in the old, ruined and generally a bit crummy stems from those childhood days of exploration and running free in the countryside, finding a tramp’s den in the corner of a field or the ruins of a cottage in the middle of a wood with the big old oak beam over the sitting room fireplace just about the only thing intact amid broken walls.

Maybe it’s something to do with the sheer crumbliness of masonry and the way wildlife sneaks in, unobtrusively at first with moulds and fungus but then takes hold with ferns and flowering plants followed by fantastically grotesque tree roots groping like old men’s hands for grip on failing stonework.

I’ll never forget son no 2’s photos of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It wasn’t the tourist-covered temples of Angkor itself that captivated me – rather his snaps of the other fantastically romantic ruins still imprisoned and secured by the tropical forest, where roots impale ancient carvings and statues, undisturbed by people or progress.

Perhaps it’s just the combined effects of the passing of time and the way the rigours of the elements are imperceptibly pulling at structures, weakening, wrecking, peeling walls and doors, producing an awesome, ravaged kind of beauty that appeals.

It can’t be merely the discovery, although sometimes that is reward enough. As a family when the kids were young, coming upon a dilapidated deserted chateau in France was the highlight of the holiday. No “Keep Off” signs and plenty of opportunity for clamberings and imaginings.

Venice is my favourite city in the world. It’s big tourist attractions are fabulous and very fine but it’s the unknown quiet bits that I like, where you can get lost and it’s actually quite spooky. Some of the canals are narrow and dark, winding between shuttered ancient buildings which are virtually crumbling into the black water. How splendid are the bright vistas, the cupolas and the basilica but how much more fascinating and atmospheric are the forgotten backwaters.

This, reputed to be Marco Polo’s house, complete with crumbling brickwork.


Another abandoned backwater a lot closer to home is the Stroudwater Canal in the Golden Valley between Chalford and Sapperton. The canal stonework is still there – just – but in places brutally rent asunder by the thick, thrusting roots of ash and hawthorn. Deep in the pit of the canal are a few puddles of water and in the abandoned marshland alongside a moorhen calls from deep within the rushes.

Lock gates are overgrown and unsafe but the walk from Chalford to Frampton Mansell and beyond is one of the most rewarding and beautiful in Gloucestershire. Hot in the summer with butterflies flitting and the thought of snoozy dormice curled up tight in their nests in the hazel thicket across the valley as you rest on the old, warmed stone of an old canal bridge.

Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley is probably the best known romantic ruin in Gloucestershire. You see it and you understand why Wordsworth was transfixed by it.

Ruskin would know what I’m on about too, although he was very fond of a word which I always think is rather twee and chocolate-boxy; picturesque.

I like his description, although he makes a bit of a meal of it:

“A broken stone has necessarily more various forms in it than a whole one; a bent roof has more various curves in it than a straight one; every excrescence or cleft involves some additional complexity of light and shade, and every stain of moss on eaves or wall adds to the delightfulness of colour. Hence in a completely picturesque object, as an old cottage or mill, there are introduced, by various circumstances not essential to it, but, on the whole, generally somewhat detrimental to it as cottage or mill, such elements of sublimity — complex light and shade, varied colour, undulatory form, and so on — as can generally be found only in noble natural objects, woods, rocks, or mountains. This sublimity, belonging in a parasitical manner to the building, renders it, in the usual sense of the word, “picturesque.”

Such sublimity doesn’t last too long these days. There are no wrecked cottages left in the Cotswolds. They have all been tarted up.

So if you have a yen to explore ruins, you usually have to head for somewhere industrial or buried deep in uncharted territory in the countryside.


A walk near Winchcombe revealed an ancient farm petrol pump, circa 1950’s at a guess, and then, on in the lime green woodland, a stone enclosure with a roof and some tarpaulin over the floor held down by pieces of Cotswold stone.



Beneath the tarpaulin, the remains of a Roman mosaic which once graced a villa on the edge of the woods just near a deep, trickling stream. It was damaged and filthy but a pretty incredible find, especially as it was once walked on by a Roman family – maybe a retired centurion from the Twentieth Legion at Glevum.



The image below is of the “front door” of the Victorian warehouses at Gloucester, part of a fabulously dilapidated High Orchard Street before it was part-bulldozed, part renovated to give way to the Gloucester Quays shopping development.


It’s good to record these places, in sketches, photographs or words, before they disappear forever.








About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
This entry was posted in Art, Countryside, Current Affairs, Watery things and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Mother’s ruins

  1. janh1 says:

    Appreciated! Thanks, Nat 🙂

  2. IsobelandCat says:


    It’s quite stunning when I visit N Ireland each year to see how old buildings have gone and replaced by new shiny redevelopments. The Troubles put off new building for a long time, but since the Good Friday Agreement things have changed. Whereas we could do the pilgrimages of farms our family used to own and see the crumbling outbuildings, the neglected home, now there’s a modern house or several. So far, the house where my grandmother was born has survived. It’s beautiful, I’d love to own it and live in it, but there was an old man living there who couldn’t maintain it. It would cost a bomb to restore, so I expect soon it and the land around it will succumb to a new development.

  3. janh1 says:

    Hi Isobel, poking around old derelict farm buildings can be fascinating as people tended to use them as places where they could just chuck stuff and forget about it for, in some cases, fifty years or more…

    Shame, isn’t it, that restoration is often unfeasibly expensive? The house where one of my grandmothers was born is still there, a terraced brick two-up/two down – only now it’s got UPVC double glazing and no doubt the range was ripped out long ago.

  4. I have discussed with others the potential of a building or city, the likes of Machu Picchu or Petra, being lost for hundreds of years now. We came to the conclusion its never going to happen but I suppose there might be things like your petrol pump for a few more years – and I hope that Roman mosaic survives!

    I always marvel at how beautifully carved the most mundane details of everyday buildings were. Look at the offices sign in your picture – and that was commonplace! I am horrified that my grandmother paid to have a beautiful marble fireplace ripped out of her house in the early seventies but such is fashion and in a few years my travertine tiles may be rather naff.

    • janh1 says:

      That pump was near a few old farm buildings – relics of what was once there. Yes Sophie – such attention to detail. Very William Morris…either useful or beautiful – and very often both! I thoroughly approve.

      Look at all the beautiful sweet little ranges that have been ripped out of homes and junked, in addition to all the fireplaces.

      The late 20th century was obsessed with modernisation. We have marble fireplaces where I work and fabulous plasterwork – all original from 1810. Every lintel on the doorways has a carved decoration in wood. Nice environment in which to work. 🙂

  5. IsobelandCat says:

    Yes I know what you mean about the small details. I love them too.

    My fantasy is that some day somebody in Athens will be digging in their garden and come across the missing sculpture of the birth of Athena that used to be on the Parthenon before the early Christians knocked out the east end to make an apse when they turned the temple into a church.

  6. IsobelandCat says:

    Well given the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard, I don’t thnk it’s beyond the bounds of possibility.

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