Blanks: A Pause in Time

A repost from way back today: a look at the things we have bricked up and discontinued….

My grandmother lived in a grand old Yorkshire house.

It was on a respectable middle-class street just down the road from the most exuberant set of church chimes.

It had servants bells and a pantry which smelled of marmalade cakes; and dark wooden floorboards of character.

There was one aspect of my grandmother’s rather beautiful old house which fascinated me more than any other.

You could only ever go halfway up the stairs.

The staircase had been a graceful example of its time. The stair rail was deep rich wood. It was wide: it hailed from another time.

When my father was a small boy, the top of the stairs was his scene of crime. When crossed, he would exact revenge by standing over the stairs, leaning on the stair rail, holding a book.

And as visitors passed a book would slam to the floor just behind them.Β How very disconcerting that must have been.

Not as disconcerting, however, as what happened to those stairs.

My grandfather died young. My grandmother, ever practical, decided the house must be divided into two flats: the lower one and the garden for my grandmother; and the upper one to be rented out to university students.

A wall was placed at the top of the stairs, so one could neither ascend or descend any longer.

They unsettled me more than I can say. There was something grotesque about a path to somewhere which was snubbed. It was the most bald example of nothingness, a demonstration of nowhere just for me. The rude wall has sat in the back of my memory all these years.

Of course, we are no strangers to such demonstrations of Nowhere here on the island. In the dying days of the seventeenth century, a tax was introduced which made blank nowheres of windows the length and breadth of the land.

It was calledΒ Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money, part of which was Window Tax. The reasoning was thus: glass was expensive, therefore those who could afford glass were moneyed. And it follows, then, that the number of windows in a house was a good measure of how much any household was able to contribute to the state coffers.

Everyone paid a flat rate tax of two shillings: that got you ten windows. After that, all bets were off. ten to twenty windows would set you back four shillings: and above twenty was a sizeable eight.

So people started bricking up their windows.. Look up anywhere in London or provincial towns and the buildings sport disconcerting blanks which leer down at pedestrians.

This country seems filled with blanks. When I was young, I used to drive along a breakneck dual carriageway renowned for its high accident rate.

Oh, the protests when it was closed: for the new motorway which replaced it was set to lacerate an area of outstanding scientific, historical and geographic interest.

The protesters came and went, the motorway was built, and now the dual carriageway where once I diced with death in a small battered Renault is a blank. It is being returned to the wild from whence it came. And these things don’t take long. Mother Nature is a voracious creature.

Surely, though, the ultimate blank must be when a track leads into the sea.

I exaggerate, of course. But one of the most poignant nowhere I have ever seen is the railway which used to carry the Orient Express, disembarking at the channel.

The sea had its own station. In the old days, one could get one’s passport checked at Victoria Station in London, and embark for the rest of the world.

The train would hurtle through Kent, headed for the sea, laden with the expectations of myriad travellers.

And when it arrived at the sea, there was a terminal to receive and process the huge numbers of passengers who alighted from their train, only to step onto a ship.

The area changed, and heartbreakingly the station closed.

I went to see it a little while ago. I walked past the No Entry signs and wandered across the overgrown platform, a machine for weighting luggage still parked next to the locked waiting room. Once, this was a doorway to the world.Β The station’s future hangs suspended in the balance now: preserve it as a heritage steam line, or bulldoze it for a new marina?

We are uncomfortable with blank places: a visual pause, a hint of what was remains unresolved; humans have turned away and perhaps that in itself makes them awkward.

It reminds us that as yet, we are stuck with just three dimensions.

We have not yet succeeded in inventing time travel.



40 thoughts on “Blanks: A Pause in Time

  1. Good repost Kate, love your grandmother memories. I have always thought that if I lived in a house with blank windows I would want to open them up again, but people don’t seem to, perhaps they are listed!

  2. Stairway to nowhere, rather disconcerting to a child I’m sure. The many things, places and people that have been discarded over time is a bit of a sad commentary on how fast and furious our modern pace is. I think that is one of the reasons I enjoy reading a real book in a real hard cover, someone like P.D. James, who writes in a methodical fashion and weaves a story at her own measured pace. I enjoy slow weekend days with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Sometimes “nowhere” can be good.

    1. Sometimes it can,Lou. I think I’m such an ‘a’ type that I hurtle from one activity to another and feel deeply discomfited by nowhere. It’s so rudderless. Maybe I should take a tend and go and face my nowhere. Who knows, I could even change type….

      1. I am sure that Andra would tell you that I am a Super Type A, but, I do have a few quiet moments.

  3. As you say, the discontinued things have a real poignancy.
    I do think the fond retention of window tax legacies is overdone. Retain a few of them to make the point; the rest should return to practicality.

  4. It is haunting that we have this in common, Kate, after a fashion. My grandmother was what most folks would call a hillbilly. She lived in eastern Kentucky in a two story house with more room than she needed. Often, we would go for a visit and find the upstairs blocked by a wooden door that was bolted. Nobody was up there, but she kept it closed off to conserve heat. That blockage drove me bonkers. Stairs were supposed to go somewhere, not nowhere.

    We have a Charleston friend who owns an older home. She likes to tell the story of its 80 windows and the taxes the original owner once paid. I think that tax followed to the colonies.

    1. Wow, you had blocked stairs too! So wrong, almost obscene to people like us. Stairs are for going somewhere, for ascending.

      nteresting that the tax made it out there to your Charleston forbears…

  5. Intriguing tidbits, Kate. Of course, if we hang on to every scrap, pane, step, and rail of history . . . we’ll have no arms with which to embrace the future.

    Forward ho! πŸ˜‰

  6. Recalling nowheres, I need only remember life in Charleston and her surrounds . . . Frequently, life there requires taking the long way ’round, because the more direct route to somewhere ends in a nowhere at either end (even though it has numerous options for jumping off in between: πŸ™‚

    And, from a vantage point far removed, I still vividly recall another of those nowheres: “SC 30 begins at South Carolina Highway 171 on James Island, at exit 3. From there, the highway runs northeast, and has two interchanges south of the Ashley River crossing. Exit 2 has access to Harbor View Road and exit 1 is for the Herbert U. Fielding Connector (SC 61).

    “The route is an orphaned segment of Interstate 526. Approximately 7 miles (11 km) separate the eastern terminus of SC 30 from the eastern terminus of I-526’s current extent. Mileage markers and exit numbers on both SC 30 and I-526 are based on an eventual merging of the routes: with miles 1 to 3 occurring on SC 30 and miles 10 to 30 used on the current Interstate 526 route.”

    Symbols of dead ends are everywhere, and yes, Lou, sometimes it’s preferable to just be nowhere. πŸ™‚

    1. Karen, what a fascinating comment, and your links as usual are just brilliant. Ideas that never quite happened…we used to have a similar dead end but when we were journalists it was joined to the rest of the network. What a difference! We had ‘flow!’

  7. This just made me laugh as it made me think of the nothings on two highways in Cape Town. the one was planned and built with everyone assuming all land in its path had been purchased and everything would go well. But alas there was one piece not purchased, and the owner was unwilling to sell. So that piece of highway stops in mid-air. Forever waiting for the ‘place to go’.

    I’m not sure of the other one, how it came to be that way.

    But together they make driving around Cape Town an interesting occupation. They do need a sign for ‘highway not complete’

  8. It’s awful to walk about and see how many windows have been boarded up and how taxes have always been out of control. I have my house in two flats as it’s just too big for me but so far I have refused to close off the stairs! Lovely post!

  9. Interesting, Kate. I found the thought of the blocked-off stairs disturbing and a bit creepy.You immediately think “Why?” Who?” “When?” And what lies behind….? Melodramatic or what?? πŸ˜€

  10. Brick up windows to avoid tax? Similar in old Louisiana USA. Home property tax was based on the width of one’s house. So people built shotgun houses 20 ft wide and 100 feet long with a long adjoining hall running the entire course of the left or right side.

  11. Such an interesting thread, Kate. Thank goodness for people needing rooming houses – it saved many widows from devastation. I have a friend who has this sort of situation in her house just now. It really does seem eerie to see steps to a wall.

    I cheered at the end of your article. My only regret is that I may not live long enough to experience teleporting. Yes – curses!

    1. It looks very un-romantic indeed these days, Cameron, the lost station of the Orient Express.I hope they have smartened it up by the time you and Felix arrive on our shores: perhaps by that time it will be running once again…

  12. Glad you explained the window tax – my 9 yo girl was talking about it the other day as we passed an old mill with windows blocked – I had no idea what she was talking about – haha – she’s been watching Horrible Histories again.

  13. I’m going to pay more attention to the blanks I come across. I’m sure there must be many, and I pass by without asking more questions. The window tax is amazing to me, not so much that “they” found a way to levy a tax, that’s somewhat a universal preoccupation, but that they remain. I really would like to know more about why? Your grandmother’s house must indeed have been a mystery to someone like you, Kate. I’m sure that seemed very strange and a definitive blank, but she was a very practical woman, it sounds like! Debra

    1. She was, Debra: her husband died in his early fifties and she had to make ends meet: she trained as a nurse and rented the top of the house to students. Sometimes blanks are brutally necessary.

  14. Yes, I remember blank windows, and there were one or two in the house I was brought up in, as a child. They always gave me the creeps.

    I used to have a dream – nightmare, really – about a bridge that didn’t have an ‘other side’ to reach. I suppose this must be some kind of archetype.

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