Walking-Writing Urban Waterways:
Tracing Fluid Relations in the Post-Industrial/Post-Human City
The where of to begin.
This essay takes a walking route along two major waterways in Sheffield, UK, as a site from which to shape a situated analysis of material, spatial and interspecies relations in the post-industrial city. The route follows stretches of both canal and river from the urban centre into its peripheries, where the remains of industry operate alongside micro-nature reserves and a former district high street selling wares with watery connections.
Sheffield’s waterside wealth was generated through the steel industry, as the place in which stainless and crucible steel was invented and innovated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The unique geographic location of the city created ideal conditions for this industry; it is situated among hills on ground rich with coal, iron and millstone, and its five rivers facilitated power and transportation. The vast industrial expansion of the UK cities from their medieval origins have been comprehensively researched and written. Rather than contribute further knowledge to this field, this essay seeks to write the site through its waters and atmospherics via embodied encounters framed by theory and practice.
Water is material, spiritual, sensual, and constitutional. Essential for the proliferation of life, water sources tell stories of how cities came to be, and the health of a city and its inhabitants is dependent upon that of its waters. The text therefore considers the significance of urban waterways beyond their designations as sites for commerce, leisure, or development, and beyond neoliberal ideals of sustainability and greening (or blueing), to consider their embodiment of climatic extremes and the fluid connections between human and non-human bodies and the material landscapes we inhabit.
Linking domestic spaces to vast infrastructures and movements of capital via bodies and minds, water flows through both the urban environment and urban imagination, as both material and metaphor. Through symbolism and mythology, it is implicated in changing understandings of health, morality, sexuality, planetary care, ancestral time, and the permeable boundaries between self and other, nature and culture. This text therefore foregrounds the interplay of the physical and psychological within our understanding of a city’s past and present and our visioning of its future, and navigates the changing waterscapes of city and body through narratives of decline, decay, rebirth, and regeneration, shifting temporalities, disrupted binaries and notions of grief and haunting.
Through solo and collective walks, archival research, practices of site-writing and an engagement in theory, I attempt to write with the site as both practice and methodology. Through it, I attempt to find my way with others; with fellow walkers, damsel flies, kingfishers, ghosts, goddesses, macroinvertebrates, mutants and mallards. I walk in weathers and move through memories and mourning to write with rocks, rivers and reservoirs, across deep time.
As spatial, relational acts of togetherness, I propose that collective or solo walks hold the potential to disrupt individualist, masculine, noble, exclusory traditions of walking and provide a productive means of navigating ethical worldly relations. Rather than creating new heroes for the canon and adding underrepresented subjects to a landscape from which they have been absented, these are practices of revision focused on the conditions of the here and now. Itinerant, relational and writerly, these are critical spatial practices through which we might navigate the intersectional political representation of othered human identities, engage in more-than-human ethics, challenge the exclusions and issues inherent within phenomenology and walking, and find productive ways to veer off course.
Conceived as a series of coilings and confluences, the structure of the text is influenced by non-linear narrative styles within arts and theory, and the form of the waterways themselves. The essay form is disrupted by a meandering flow without singular argument, expressing the shifting material, temporal, social, spatial, and psychological nature of the urban encounter. The images I include aim to express something of the dreaminess, ghostliness, and multi-temporality of the urban experience.
Divided into two parts as my walks lead from canal to river, the essay is formed around key thematic sections relating to bodies, minds and materials: along the canal I encounter ‘changing states’, ‘apparitions’, ‘pearlescence’, ‘minerality’, ‘porosity’ and ‘cloud forms’, while the river brings ‘suds, amniotics and seepages’, ‘orientations and intersections’, and ‘the weir(d)’ into focus. The passage below is an extract from the river section at Salmon Pastures.
Suds, amniotics and seepages
Asphalt, welding, lubricants, melting; hot rolling, grinding and meat. A densely packed landscape of low-rise commercial units sits behind the remaining façades of a Victorian high street, inscribed with the language of trade and bodies in a poetry of process and exchange. A valley of sheet metal, it branches out of the city like a prosthetic arm. As a circle of water, The Blue Loop cuts through thirsty lands, dry and hardened with tarmac and concrete.
In these watery environs, janitorial products sit in shop windows alongside fishing tackle, discount bathtubs, hydroponic supplies, adult accessories, and aquatic, amphibious animals. Pet shops and sex shops point to the ‘exotic’ but bear no signs of life. I cross the River Don at Washford Bridge and make my way down to a secluded spot where the land rises from shallow waters at a subtle gradient. The water here trickles and pools, smoothing stones with pressures over time beyond comprehension. It flows gently with the nourishing promise of continuance.
A loop walked and cycle broken,
Waters congeal as cells form, tongue and spleen.
A current, no longer present.
One morning, the next, something missing; a pause.
No show; clear blue.
A flow dammed, contained.
Collections of eggs, bobbing and swaying, passed between the fingers of bathers as humans and fish once shared this stream. Public urinals were built over the river at regular intervals. Downstream, a forest of fig trees grew from seeds excreted by biscuit-eating workers into a river which, warmed by hot metal and industrial by-products, simulated the Mediterranean conditions required for the fruit to flourish. The river here flowed over iridescent, slippery skin and flowed on sullied with human and chemical waste. I squint to catch sight of underwater life moving through translucent tones of umber and rust.
 Matthew Gandy, The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity and the Urban Imagination (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014), 2-12.
 I take from Jane Rendell’s definition of site-writing as that which brings the situatedness and subjectivity of the author in relation to sites and objects of study, both material and remembered or imagined. See Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism (London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010), 1-20.
 On an approach to revising histories of walking I refer to Deirdre and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility,” Contemporary Theatre Review 22:2, (24 May 2012): 230.
 For a development of critical spatial practice as interdisciplinary practices which operate at the intersection of theory and practice, art and architecture, and public and private, see Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between (London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 1-12. On the critical potentials of disorientation, I refer to Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 3-5 and 178.
 Trout and salmon are reported to have returned to the River Don, and work is underway to make more permanent courses for them to navigate. “Salmon found in River Don at Sheffield.” Accessed 10 August 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/salmon-found-in-river-don-at-sheffield.