In the Spring of 1790 Xavier de Maistre was confined, under house arrest, and embarked on a remarkable voyage around his bedroom. It was a journey taken almost entirely in his imagination. The book A Journey Around My Room and the later A Nocturnal Investigation Around My Room were the result.
‘There’s no more attractive pleasure than to follow one’s ideas wherever they lead, as the hunter pursues his game, without even trying to keep to any set route. And so, when I travel through my room, I rarely follow a straight line: I go from my table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I began, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down without further ado.’
In the two books familiar objects are re-viewed and the furniture, engravings etc. explored as if they were being witnessed for the first time in a strange land.
He praised the value of such a voyage and strongly recommended it as a form of travel for the poor, the infirm, and the lazy. Arthur Rimbaud reputedly coined the verb robinsonner ‘to let the mind wander or to travel mentally’ as a response to both Maistre and Daniel Defoe’s twin themes of imaginary voyaging and isolation in Robinson Crusoe.
A sedentary or stationary traveller, an indoor flaneur or an armchair historian.
In my archaeological dig into the history of our old boat Eileen, her builder and owners, a great deal of the research now requires me to robinsonner into a time and place that are otherwise close to impossible to access. Her history has multiple layers that need to be viewed in different ways to build a bricolage (a loose and precarious assemblage of odds and ends) of the 110+ years of her existence.
The drifting around the landscape of her history has taken me into the Black Country.
The first trace of The Black Country as an expression dates from the 1840s and some believe that name was derived from the sooty residue of heavy industry – the foundries and pits – that dominated the area. The Black Country Society prefers to define the Black Country’s borders as the area on the thirty foot coal seam and might therefore include Brierley Hill, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Blackheath, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Bilston (where Eileen worked), Dudley, Netherton, Tipton (where Eileen was built), Wednesbury and parts of Halesowen, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
Today it commonly refers to the majority of the four boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton although it is said that:
‘No two Black Country men or women will agree on where it starts or ends.’
The first record of the term the Black Country dates from 1846 and occurs in the novel Colton Green: A Tale of the Black Country by the Reverend William Gresley, who was then a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral. He introduces the area as ‘that dismal region of mines and forges, commonly called ‘the Black Country’, implying that the term was already in use.
The phrase was used again as a description rather than a proper noun by the Illustrated London News in an 1849 article on the opening of the South Staffordshire Railway and an 1851 guidebook to the London and North Western Railway included an entire chapter entitled The Black Country which included this description:
‘In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Dudley, Darlaston, Bilston and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin horses walk their doleful round. From time to time you pass a cluster of deserted roofless cottages of dingiest brick, half swallowed up in sinking pits or inclining to every point of the compass , while the timbers point up like the ribs of a half decayed corpse. The majority of the natives of this Tartarian region are in full keeping with the scenery – savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and discusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognised as the same as that of civilized England.’
— Samuel Sidney, Rides on Railway
‘By this time the day had changed in a manner characteristic of the Black Country. I’ve told you already how in the early morning we got the impression that the sky had been washed by dew and all its impurities drained downward into the lower levels of the coal measures. One reason for this clearness was that the day before had been Sunday, and ninety percent of the smoke stacks were at rest. But all morning the chimneys of Dulston and Wolverbury and Darsall, and all the other congeries of red brick with uncouth names, had been disgorging their fumes of unconsumed carbon and sprays of steam, until a grayish yellow cloud hung over them. There wasn’t a breath of wind that day; if it had been left to itself, the stuff would just have settled down on them like soup; but all the time fresh filth went on bubbling up from the bottom, so that the basin gradually filled, with the result that by midday its skimmings had reached the level of our sky. You couldn’t see them, and yet they took every bit of colour out of the landscape, just as though we were looking through smoked glass. They were like a poison in our lungs; they made the air we breathed seem flat, devitalized, warm. We could taste their faint acridity with our tongues. All the time this thin, invisible poison came creeping up the slope of the hill. Evelyn spoke of it as a fog; we Londoners know the meaning of an honest fog; but this wasn’t a fog, it was a blight.
So we walked on through a landscape that was like a spoiled photgraphic plate. We followed the line of the Roman causeway between banks of rusty hazel. The surface of the road had been repaired by a dressing of slag that gave it a feeling of black sterility. The fields that we saw on either side of it, wherever the hedges straggled into gaps, had no greenness in them. They were dotted with mounds of ashes, on which no weeds would grow, and pits of dirty water. No trees but an occasional black and twisted hawthorn. In one field a huge circular boiler of a type that has long since been discarded lay on its side like a stranded buoy. No Man’s Land with a vengeance!’
Francis Brett Young,
‘And as we stood there, a curious thing happened: a kind of window opened in the rain, just as if a cloud had been hitched aside like a curtain, and in the space between we saw a landscape that took our breath away. The high ground along which the road ran fell away through a black, woody belt, and beyond it, for more miles than you can imagine, lay the whole basin of the Black Country, clear, amazingly clear, with innumerable smokestacks rising out of it like the merchant shipping of the world laid up in an estuary at low tide, each chimney flying a great pennant of smoke that blew away eastward by the wind, and the whole scene bleared by the light of a sulphurous sunset. No one need ever tell me again that the Black Country isn’t beautiful. In all Shrophire and Radnor we’d seen nothing to touch it for vastness and savagery. And then this apocalyptic light! It was like a landscape of the end of the world, and, curiously enough, though men had built the chimneys and fired the furnaces that fed the smoke, you felt that the magnificence of the scene owed nothing to them. Its beauty was singularly inhuman and its terror – for it was terrible, you know – elemental. It made me wonder why you people who were born and bred there ever write about anything else.’
Francis Brett Young,
And through it all laced the Birmingham Canal Navigation with it’s numerous loaded day boats hauled by horses or powered tugs. Eileen was built as just such a day boat.