I grew up in the London suburbs, an area criss-crossed by working railway lines. Later, though, as a student in Somerset, some friends and I excitedly came across a disused line, complete with a dark tunnel which we entered with torches to nervously explore.

More recently - after many years in the south-east, commuting into London on the railway - I moved back to Somerset to discover that the same disused line passed through the village in which I now lived. The remaining ‘ruins’ of the physical infrastructure around the place were interesting enough, many either re-purposed for modern life, or sitting stranded as the twenty-first century went on around them. But I began to find the miles of rural spaces through which the railways had once passed even more fascinating; quiet, but yet resonating with the railway’s palpable absence. I knew I didn’t want to replicate the railways enthusiasts’ myriad photographs of old bridges and embankments, i.e. simply documenting the remains, but wanted to both say something about the place of the ruins today, and to reflect on the empty spaces to which I was drawn.

As a past student of economics, I was of course aware of the (in)famous Beeching cuts of the 1960s and understood how the railways were made ‘uneconomical’ by the growth and development of motor transport. However, it seemed that there was more to the matter than simple economic ‘progress’: The railways had, for the best part of a century, represented a way of life; an infrastructure of engineering, communication, transport, freight; one involving, not just machines, but people at all levels. Yet they had, to a considerable extent in certain places, been swept away on the altars of economics, politics and societal ‘progress’, as many would-be customers preferred the convenience and personal nature of the internal combustion engine. So, whilst the fingers of the Victorian railway network had once spread all across England, today, many large towns have no rail connection, and the country as a whole struggles to deal with the environmental and other implications of road transport. Yet the fingerprints of the lost railways remain on the land, retaining the DNA of their source, whether the physicality of the ruins, or simply the ambience of certain places.

Moving around the area of north Somerset, the accessible stretches of the former railways, many now either official footpaths, cycle-ways or permissive pathways, are often both peaceful and evocative. Clearly over the past fifty or sixty years, nature has begun to reclaim the spaces, but rarely wholly so, the use of the footpaths and/or animal routes keeping ways at least partly clear. Of course, most of these tracks either stop dead, perhaps at a road where the crossing has been removed or the route subsumed into an open field, or simply peter out as nature has taken over completely. Yet, in-between, the landscape bears the traces of the railway, the new merely masking the old; sometimes an in-filled cutting across a field or just a suggestion of a route curving through a rural wood or meadow. It is as if the landscape remembers what has gone before.

Many of these locations, these quiet places with mature trees and saplings, shrubs and vague tracks, began to demand to be photographed and this felt entirely appropriate as there seemed to be an overlap between the concepts of photography and these landscapes: If a photograph can be thought of as denoting, rather than the existence of something, the actual absence of the referent (the ‘thing’ photographed being no longer present), perhaps, then, in a similar way, a ‘landscape’, being a man-made creation on any number of levels, could be considered to signify the loss or absence of what had gone before, whether the original wilderness before humans set eyes on it, or the various layers of man-altered scenes that have existed since humans began to impose their own various myths upon the space.

Ian Harris, August, 2020

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