Does everywhere have stories? Does everywhere have “character”?

The following blog post is an extension of a poster presentation given at the  International Association for Landscape Ecology (IALE) UK Landscape Characterisation – Methods and Applications in Landscape Ecology Conference held from the 7th – 9th September at the University of Reading.  Please click this link to view: IALE poster (A4 pdf).

In addition to the poster and last year’s blog post that accompanied the North West Doctoral Training Programme Arts & Humanities conference held at Keele University here are some musings from a creative-critical perspective on place: Rochdale and its complex, intriguing character! I’m looking forward to learning so much more at this conference.

Pre-ramble: what is “character”? Some thoughts…

I’m walking down near Baron Street, heading towards Rochdale bus station – a grey, hyper shiny affair much in the style of mid-2000s design – in a bit of a rush to not miss my connection and thus the writing session I am due to facilitate.  I see a brick building with a banner, red writing on white, that reads “Gym’ll Fix It”.  I ponder the pun and the potential inappropriateness of this – obviously old sign –  and stop in my tracks.  I’ve just made a sweeping judgement on Rochdale, on its presentation in the media, on the town’s character itself.

The word “character” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, mostly descriptive – it is to used to distinguish one thing from another, or to symbolise something or someone.  Let’s think about literature for a moment, for example, Medieval and Tudor morality plays featured symbolic characters that depict specific morals.  Folklorist and literary critic William Roy MacKenzie argued that in Everyman‘the principal characters are personified abstractions or highly symbolic or highly universalized types’ (1914: 9).  “Character” then functions as something that describes features or nature.  Something that could be considered taxonomic, to classify.  But perhaps that’s too simplistic. Too binary. As a writer I think a lot about character – what is it? What does “character” mean?

Is character personality?

My three-year-old niece has “a lovely, cheeky character” ; even after getting poster paint everywhere, her smile can soothe the savage auntie.

Is character experienced in action?

Our crafty cat pinching the other cat’s food is “a little character, isn’t he?!” . He deftly distracts then swipes a well practised paw into the bowl before disappearing behind the piano.

Is character used to establish a role? 

I’ve recently helped to produce Hedda Gabler for our drama group.  Ibsen’s play features roles that are more complex than those in a morality play and the actors need to “get into character” in order to portray the titular protagonist’s story.

Is character something that is fixed or is malleable?

If we do something unexpected, something that we wouldn’t normally do or say, then it’s “out of character”.  Sweating and swearing after a fun run got competitive it was deemed “character building” ; there is a developmental aspect.

Is character derogatory?

This may just be a bit of British vernacular, however, when describing someone eccentric, dissenting from so-called social norms then they’re deemed “a bit of a… character”.

The character of a place: Rochdale

2012, South Pennine Fringe in early September: 

Slogging through the driving rain on Blackstone Edge, precariously balanced on the trig point, we could just about make out the blurry stretch of the Rochdale borough spread out below in valley dips.  Undulating green fields give way to stone cottages. Flats, just about visible in the distance, are small and blunt as tapestry needles. There are hazy Victorian memories from remaining mill towers.  Stitched onto the landscape: stone walls, sheep, grey threads of roads.  The sky a watercolour wash in the key of grey.  Closer still to where we stood, a tumble of water over millstone grit, rock to rock, to ground to feet.  Water, water, everywhere.

2016, a rented house in Stockport in early September:

A different landscape. Over the last two years I have been working in Rochdale.  This work has been defined by my research, study, conversations, workshop facilitation, and writing about the borough.  It has been coloured by something more intangible too through experience and reflection of the environment through travelling through or simply walking around the town and its surrounding environs.  Something that could be deemed a phenomenological experience, or perhaps autoethnographic, something that I try to express through writing about it – writing influenced by place.

“Landscape” means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors

Council of Europe, European Landscape Convention, Florence, Italy 20/10/2000

Landscape is imbued with as much meaning for humans as for a diving kestrel. For the bird sees its landscape as panorama through the gaze of protection, food, water, breeding, shelter, and – allowing for anthropomorphic fancy – perhaps just catching the thermals for the sheer joy of existence. Philosopher and phenomenologist Professor Edward Casey suggests that landscapes should be called “placescapes” as they are ‘ cogeries of places in the fullest of experiential sense’ (2002: 271).  This view, however, is contested, for contrasting viewpoints see: Darby, 2000; Hall, 2006; Massey, 2006; Wylie, 2007; and Stillman 2011.  My current thinking is that landscapes are an imbrication of places with multifaceted character/s, much like places are an imbrication of cultures.

Characterising a place through literature: the literary geographies of Rochdale

In order to be able to understand the “character/s” of places, we need to have knowledge of language in order to define and imagine it. Once we’ve acquired these skills we can then begin to build a place in our imagination: from the snowy streets of Dickensian London to the scuzzy streets of Jeff Noon’s Manchester. Different texts make sense of place in different ways, a few examples (mentioned on the poster):

  • Edwin Waugh’s apostrophe poem ‘To the River Roch’ is pure pastoral pastiche presenting a Rochdale of bonny clear waters and childhood nostalgia.
  • In Oliver Ormerod’s dialect writing version of events of the Great Exhibition describes fellow Rochdalians as familiar friends when compared to the “roughheads” from nearby Oldham.
  • The family in Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story ‘Lizzie Leigh’ retreat back to the farmland haven on the hills of Rochdale from miserable 19th Century Manchester.
  • In Rule of Night, Trevor Hoyle’s 1970s Rochdale is a place where skinhead thugs roam and rule the streets, spitting curses as they smash up bus stops.

As Christine Tudor argues ‘Over the centuries writers, artists, and others have described and enthused about our landscapes. They have linked them with the social and economic processes and practices of the period, successfully describing and articulating what it is that is special about our landscapes, whether urban, rural, or somewhere in between. Importantly, they illustrated what makes one landscape different from another’ (2014:7).  All these literary examples paint a picture of different characters of place and of the people in those places. A Rochdale landscape of myriad  characters.


Blog References

Casey, E.S. Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2002).

Darby, W. J. Landscape and Identity.  Geographies of Nation and Class in England (Oxford: Berg, 2000).

Hall, M. ‘Identity, Memory and Countermemory: The Archaeology of an Urban Landscape’, Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2) (2006) 189-209.

MacKenzie, W.R., The English Moralities From the Point of View of Allegory (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1914)

Massey, D. ‘Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains’, Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2) (2006) 33-48.

Stillman, A. ‘Frank O’Hara and the Urban Pastoral’ in Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School, ed. by T. Gray (Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2011) pp. 375 – 384.

Tudor, C. An Approach to Landscape Character Assessment, (Natural England, 2014) <> [accessed 19 August 2016]

Wylie, J.  Landscape (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007).


IALE Poster References

Alexander, N. ‘On Literary Geography’. Literary Geographies , 1 (2015), 3-6

Alexander, N. & Cooper, D. (Eds.) Poetry and Geography (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).

Bamford, S. ‘Ode to a Plotting Parson’ is republished in Gardner, J. et al ‘The poetry of Peterloo’ in Return to Peterloo, ed. by Robert Poole (Manchester: Manchester Centre for Regional History, 2014), pp. 173 – 178.

Bobbin, T. Lancashire Dialect and Poems (London: Hurst, Chance, & Co., 1828).

de Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

Gaskell, E. Lizzie Leigh And Other Tales (London: Chapman and Hall, 1855).

Hansen, W. ‘Mythology and Folktale Typology: Chronicle of a Failed Scholarly Revolution’. Journal of Folklore Research. Vol. 34, No. 3 (September – December, 1997), 275-280.

Harley, J. B. The New Nature of Maps.  Essays in the History of Cartography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Hones, Sheila, ‘Text as It Happens: Literary Geography’, Geography Compass, 2/5 (2008), 1301-1317.

Madge, C. ‘On the creative (re)turn to geography: poetry, politics and passion’. Area, 46:2 (2014), 138-185.

Colley March, H.Y The Writings of Oliver Ormerod with a Memoir of the Author  (Rochdale: The Aldine Press, 1901).

Saunders, A. ‘Literary geography: Reforging the connections’. Progress in Human Geography, 34 (4) (2010), 436-452.

Siddique, J. Full Blood (London: Salt, 2011)

Thacker, A. ‘The Idea of a Critical Literary Geography. New Formations, 57:1 (2005 – 2006), 56-73.

Tilley, C. ‘Introduction: Identity, Place, Landscape and Heritage.’ Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2) (2006) 7-32.

Waugh, E. Poems and Songs (second series) (Oldham: W.E. Clegg, 1889)

Warner, M. Phantasmagoria: spirit visions, metaphors, and media into the twenty-first century (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

Westwood, J. & Simpson, J. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys (London: Penguin, 2006).



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