A brief guide to Blastburn

Bramshill House, Hampshire, from an early photograph: how Midnight Court might have looked

I’ve just started my reread of Joan Aiken’s standalone title Midnight is a Place (1974) and thought I’d say a few introductory words about the fictional town of Blastburn which features so strongly in this novel, set as it is in both an alternate history (or uchronia) as well as an alternate world (or paracosm).

By the way, it has nothing to do with the move called Blast Burn in Pokémon, a term which postdates Joan Aiken’s first Wolves story. More likely is that she was inspired by the development of blast furnaces in the early industrial period: for example, ‘hot blast’ was a method for preheating air blown into iron furnaces, a procedure invented and patented by James Beaumont Neilson in Scotland in 1828, four years before the Chronicles actually start.

Though not officially part of the author’s Wolves Chronicles the mention of Blastburn in this novel brings to mind its appearances earlier in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and later in Is (1992, also published as Is Underground). For the purposes of this and subsequent posts I’m going to assume that they all refer to the same place, and this has implications for Blastburn’s geography and chronology.

As I mentioned in a previous discussion here, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Blastburn is a place of “great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare,” has huge slag-heaps like “black pyramids” and dark cobbled streets where work goes on all night. On the road south is a “bridge over the wide river with its busy traffic of coal barges and wool wherries.”

It is here, on the furthest outskirts of the town, that we noted the Lowood-like Brisket Charity School where Miss Slighcarp takes Bonnie and Sylvia and from where they eventually escape at the end of 1832.

In Midnight is a Place we will find ourselves first in a grand mansion, the place of the title being Midnight Court, before moving to Blastburn. In Is we will explore more of Blastburn being near the sea as well as discovering it is built partially on Holdernesse Hill, under which an underground city called New Blastburn has been constructed.

Now, where did Joan Aiken have it in mind that Blastburn would be? You might initially think that with a name like that she might have thought of Blackburn as a model but, in fact, from many other clues we must dismiss a Lancashire location and plump for Yorkshire.

First there is the name Holdernesse. This is inspired by Holderness, a long peninsula east of Beverley and Kingston Upon Hull, bounded by the Humber estuary to the south and the North Sea to the east. Constantly eroded by wind and tide, the ‘ness’ ends in a spit composed of sand and shingle known as Spurn Head.

1912 map of the lost towns of East Yorkshire (Wikimedia Commons)

The Humber estuary, a confluence of the rivers Hull, Ouse and Trent, is what I surmise is called the River Wash here: ‘river wash’ of course means alluvial soil but also references the Wash, a large bay further south between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. As I’ll discuss later, the story of King John’s treasure being lost as his baggage train crossed the area partly parallels the fate of Gold Thingy in Is.

Now, is Kingston upon Hull a stand-in for Blastburn? I suspect not: it chiefly flourished as a port (whaling was dominant in the early part of the 19th century) rather than an industrial centre; and while its 12th-century predecessor Wyke on Hull was founded by Meaux Abbey as a port for exporting their wool, the textile factory which features in Midnight is a Place is too separated in time to have a direct connection with this medieval trade.

Kingston upon Hull in 1866 (Wikimedia Commons)

No, Blastburn in this novel is rather more likely to be a generic Yorkshire town of the period, a bit of West Yorkshire plonked in East Yorkshire: textile factories are more associated with Morley in Leeds, with Halifax and Bradford, for example. In addition, character names here are typically Yorkshire — Murgatroyd, Braithwaite, Gammel and Scatcherd, for example — and a chief antagonist in the novel, Sir Randolph Grimsby, bears a surname derived from the nearby Lincolnshire port on the south bank of the Humber.

This very brief guide to Blastburn is, then, a kind of amuse-bouche to a series of posts over the coming weeks in which, after a review of Midnight is a Place, I shall commence the usual process of exploration, investigating people and places, themes and geography and chronology.

And in case you hadn’t already twigged, this Aiken title is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

19 thoughts on “A brief guide to Blastburn

  1. Pingback: A brief guide to Blastburn — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. piotrek

    Very interesting, Chris, your literary investigations are always a joy to read! I’m especially impressed by your expertise in Pokemon lore 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah! No, my lore concerning Pokemon amounts to zilch, just a bit of online searching fetched this nugget up! Any road — Yorkshire for ‘Anyway’, Piotrek, in case you hadn’t guessed! — I’m glad you enjoyed this as there’s more to come. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I re-read The Whispering Mountain recently for a challenge and thought at the time that I ought to go back to the rest of Aiken’s novels. Everyone should spend some regular time with Dido Twite for their own sanity’s sake.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can’t disagree with your last statement! And while Dido doesn’t appear in this novel I can sense her presence in the background. 🙂

      If The Whispering Mountain is still fresh in your mind and you haven’t already seen my several posts on it, here is a link to them:
      https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/the-whispering-mountain/

      And if you missed it, here is a notice of a readalong of Wolves happening in August via Twitter: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-3t3

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am intrigued by your slip of the ‘pen’ with Gold Thingy – the Cambridge Dictionary gives the meaning of ‘thingy’ as a name one is unwilling to mention…in this case with good reason!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, a real humdinger of a slip! I was relying on my notes from way back when in which, along with Roy Twite, Moderator of Humberland and His Excellency I did indeed write this instead of Gold Kingy — accurate but also inaccurate! I’ll leave my terminological inexactitude to stand as testimony to the inadvisability of not checking original sources…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, this is the Aiken book that stuck with me most from my childhood – I loved it! I still distinctly remember the cover, covered in a plastic sleeve from the school library. And we lived in Hull for three years, so I feel an affinity with the book and the area it was (probably) based on. looking forward to more ‘Midnight’ posts, Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so dark, isn’t it! I only got to read this when it was reissued a couple or so years ago, only then feeling its full force.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on my commentaries to this, Lynn, especially as I’m going to be largely superimposing Blastburn on Hull, using the latter as a loose template. And I hope my review does your memory of the book justice. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be looking out for your reviews with interest, Chris. My memories of Hull are fading and my memories of the book have certainly been compromised by 30 odd years’ distance! But I know I loved it and I know you must too

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I do, I do! It’s more realist than the Chronicles as a whole, more akin to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase which really had no hint of the magic realism of later instalments, but nevertheless full of Aiken’s usual themes and twists.

          There are some similarities with Hull, which I’ll be pointing out, but Blastburn was only founded about forty or so years before the story opens, so not as much overlap as one might think.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Love the maps. A good friend lives in Bridlington, so I know a tiny corner of this area from my visit with her a couple of years ago. Looks like you’re gearing up for a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable (for your readers, not to mention yourself) study of another Aiken novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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