Off the map study by Newcastle University professor highlights secret places

In a city whose story goes back to the Roman occupation there will be many little-known nooks and crannies left behind by history.

From the vampire rabbit opposite St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle to the “plaguey burial ground” at Byker, there would seem to be no spot left undiscovered.

But Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, has laid claim to one.

He came across the city’s “lost island” on his journey to work from his home in Heaton.

The discovery led him to clamber over the barriers on the Central Motorway East – at a quiet time, it has to be said – to investigate.

His destination was a wooded, triangular piece of land left marooned by the building of the motorway and its slip roads in 1975.

Since then, the island has remained unregarded and unnoticed by the thousands who drive past it each day.

“These places are easily ignored, but once you start noticing any particular one it can start to exert a queasy fascination,” says Prof Bonnett.

It’s as if you are seeing a landscape that is invisible to everyone else.

Could I claim this island, become a 30-minute Crusoe amid the din?

Having reached his island, Prof Bonnett found a mix of maple and alder trees and self-seeded shrubbery.

His excursion was part of his interest in an age when Google Earth would suggest that every discovery has been made and every adventure had.

Not so, says Prof Bonnett, who provides the evidence in his new book Off the Map, from Aurum Press at £16.99.

In the book he explores 47 places across the world – and the island on his doorstep – which qualify as being off the map.

It will all be included in his talk on maps and the imagination at the Edinburgh International Book Fair on August 19.

Part of Prof Bonnett’s argument is that places matter to people – where they come from and where they live.

We are, he says, a place-making, place-loving species.

What makes your place special – its diversity and character – is important.

But paradoxically, says Prof Bonnett, was as well as the attraction to place there is also the human need to explore, to discover the new.

That manifests itself from the great voyages of discovery over the centuries to the carrot of exotic destinations dangled by the travel industry.

Our fascination with the hidden, the lost, the secret and mystery is evidenced by the obligatory use of the words in the titles of a certain type of TV programme.

We can develop intense relationships with places,” says Prof Bonnett.

But I have been increasingly concerned about how our sense of exploration and relationship to place has withered away as more places become similar and every high street has the same shops.”

One of the main components of character and specialness is evidence of heritage and history.

When you get rid of the past, it’s like a form of ideological cleansing, where only one vision survives,” says Prof Bonnett.

He is originally from Essex and moved to Newcastle in 1993.

He says: “ I saw that in Newcastle a very distinctive identity and culture had survived, and it was one of the inspirations for the book. The North East has been through the same process as everywhere else, but nevertheless it has retained something special.

“It’s a good place to write a book about the importance of a sense of place.”

Prof Bonnett’s list of Off the Map places includes:

The island of New Moore, which emerged in the Bay of Bengal as a cyclone washed material down rivers into the sea.

It was claimed by both India and Bangladesh. India stationed troops on it in 1981 and erected a flag pole.

But before the arguments could start the island sank beneath the waves.

Zheleznogorsk, 2,200 miles east of Moscow, was established in 1950 to make nuclear weapons. It did not appear on maps and was referred to by a PO box number.

It was only in 1992 that its existence was officially confirmed and entry is still highly restricted.

Derinkuyu, Turkey. A chamber was revealed when a wall gave way.

It led to the discovery of underground rooms large enough to house 30,000 people, wine and oil presses, stables, food halls, a church and staircases, all built it is believed by early Christians living in what was a lawless area.

North cemetery in Manila and the City of the Dead in Cairo. Both are home to thousands who have moved in among the tombs.

North Sentinel Island, 800 miles to the east of India, which has no natural harbour and is surrounded by reefs and rough seas.

The five-mile wide island is home to a tribe of around 100 who fire arrows at anyone who attempts to come close.

Wittenoom in Western Australia, whose only industry was a blue asbestos mine.

The town of 20,000 officially ceased to exist in 2007 because of the levels of contamination.

Kjong-dong in North Korea – a fake place where lights go on and off in tower bocks with no glass in the windows.

There are no residents or visitors. The blocks were built to suggest North Korea’s progress and modernity and to lure defectors from South Korea.

Source – Newcastle Journal,  13 Aug 2014

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