Ardmore Bleachworks, Northern Ireland [2009]   [collaboration with Renée]

In Northern Ireland to visit family, we found ourselves stationed on the edge of Ballyshaskey - a rain-soaked village traversed by the River Faughan. Claustrophobic, several times each day we would embark on a extended walk - though with our minds elsewhere, and with little sense of our surroundings, would set off merely in search of distraction (drawn across a field by the sight of livestock, or into a housing estate by the sound of laughter).

On our second day, a boarded-up lodge piqued our interest, and so we started down a nearby dirt track. Alongside ran a tributary of the river; and our initial intention was to follow the stream as it meandered down to the confluence. We had already started our descent - squeezing through a barbed wire fence - when suddenly in the distance we noticed some kind of cooling tower. As we edged closer, a series of derelict buildings hove into view, an entire complex soon revealing itself. Ring-fenced in steel, the site was comprised of dozens of low rise structures, though only the walls remained intact. Everywhere roofs had collapsed, trusses scattered on the floor like a child's playset. Again, nature was in the ascendency: walls veined with river-gorged ivy, the floors blanketed in sedge and ragwort.

Subsequent research revealed the complex to be a derelict bleach works, a branch of the textile industry of which there are now few traces, the majority having closed by the 1950s. An inevitable casualty of the declining cotton industry, they quickly followed the mills into extinction; and most have long since been demolished. This particular bleach works - referred to locally as Ardmore Bleach Works or Ardmore Linen Works - closed in 1966 (the last recorded owner: Hugh Lyle) and has lain derelict ever since. As with many such sites, there have been occasional attempts at redevelopment (even a plan to reestablish a water mill), yet against the backdrop of The Troubles and decades of underinvestment, nothing has ever come to pass. 

This was evidently an old mill, although so long-emptied it was equally the shelter of its subsequent squatters. There was something about its architraves and collapsed corners which welcomed imaginative additions. Vines curled around debris like a child's endearing scribbles, the crashed-down beams like hastily interposed pages. It had little to say for its old life: flues, funnels, a toilet suspended in the middle of a wall. Its most ominous features were the channels sunk into the ground to siphon liquids into the river - dark conduits coursing with imagined run-offs of bleach, caustic soda, and sulphur.

The access road ran adjacent to a narrow gulley - a waste-strewn strip of water flowing around rusted debris; everything from plastic bags and toys to a moss-engulfed hatchback, unmoved from where it had obviously been dumped (or crashed) years earlier. Like the skin itself, capable of subsuming objects pressed too long into its surface, this is a riverbed used to dumping: its gewgaws like insignia embossed in the earth; each glittering through the rubble like prized, unnatural stones.

The historical society 'The Mills of Northern Ireland' have unearthed records of bleaching on the site as far back as 1740, while references to the long-term owners, Carey McClelland and Co., first appeared in 1801. An entry in the Ordnance Survey memoirs from 1836 provides even greater insight into operations:

 

"About 500,000 yards of linen are annually bleached here, in addition 200,000 square yards of calico were bleached here for a manufacturing company in Glasgow. Number of persons employed is 48 men and 12 boys; daily wages for men is 9d, for boys under 16 7s to 14s per month. There are two beetling machines, 4 wash mill and 5 soaping machines, contains 4 waterwheels averaging 5H.P. "

As with any trade, bleaching developed its own peculiar lexicon; and I have since learned of beetling frames, blueing houses and hacking machines; of jobs such as crofter, maker up and blaterdown. Few traces of this work remain, however: a gear wheel affixed to a wall, the remnants of a mangle, half a roller. Instead the debris is mostly structural (window frames, cladding, concrete pillars)...

excerpt from Stalker (1979), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Studio: Mosfilm

In its ruined antechambers and preternatural quiet, the complex recalled the terrain of Tarkovsky's Stalker. As if to underline the comparisons, the zone was visited by constant drizzle (water being a leitmotif of all Tarkovsky's films). Here a network of aqueducts, troughs and rivulets funnelled rain quietly around the site (feeding a vast subterranean world, glimpsed only through small inlets, of vaults, catchbasins and sump pools).

On our left, a wall rutted through stunted growth, its arched entrance a pile of rubble. [If you think too long on it, the tenuous nature of the glue, cement and other adhesives causes collapsings in the mind - a grand process of unpatterning. These empty places are liminal because they point to the degree of work needed simply to keep a building serviceable. [There must be some calculation of the exact pressure exerted upon a building, from the continual opening of doors, to weather and gravity: a sum consisting of its visitors and sleepers (even the slow scraping of its cleaners, bringing ammonia and mops to surfaces every night)....]

Within this drowned world, plants flourished: submerged beams coated in green sludge, clumps of algae circuiting small puddles. In the larger pools, rushes, reeds and sedges lined the perimeter, while beneath the surface, strange macrophytes swayed gently with the current (exquisite marine wraiths that fluttered together like the spirits of a sacred Neptunian grove). Animals were more furtive - birds nestled silently between wall and beam; damselflies and water beetles rarely breaking cover.

At one point we found ourselves above the river at its raging bend, and could see what looked like a dead animal beneath (something with its feet caught in the stones, and its paws or hooves reaching forth, streaming with the current). Perhaps it will stay that way until its bones show; or the rapids tear it limb from limb, dispatching its piecemeal carcass downstream..

In what remained of our holiday, we returned frequently. At first taking photographs - drawn towards textures, details, the verdigris overlay of a copper pipe - we eventually settled into a pattern of dispersal and drift. In Tarkovsky's film, the characters venture in search of a secret room (in which it is rumoured people's innermost desires are fulfilled) though for us, our routes were circuitous, repetitive (and increasingly sensitive to changing configurations of light, rainfall, sound; all that was transient and fluid).

Ardmore Bleachworks, undated postcard

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire..the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe) numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.

Ulysses, James Joyce, pp 783-785.