Joan Aiken’s Blastburn

Kingston Upon Hull as Blastburn, in Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (credit here)

Another post in my series exploring the ins and outs of Joan Aiken’s paracosm Midnight is a Place (1974) set in an alternate Britain she calls Albion.

This time I’m taking a closer look at the fictional industrial town of Blastburn, making an assumption that it’s in the region of Kingston upon Hull in East Yorkshire, maybe even contiguous if not actually occupying the same equivalent space.

In fact, I’m going further by basing Blastburn on Hull’s Old Town, the core of the medieval settlement bounded by the river Hull to the east and the Humber estuary to the south.

Wenceslas Hollar’s The Towne of Hull (north is to the left, Hull river at top and Humber right)

Wenceslas Hollar’s 17th-century map of Kingston shows the Old Town within its walls, with the Tudor fortifications on the east bank of the Hull river (at the top of his bird’s eye view plan).

By the 18th and 19th centuries the city had expanded outside the now demolished walls, with the moat enlarged to create new docks for increased trade. Over a late 19th-century map I’ve placed some of the street names that are mentioned in the novel, following the routes taken by our young protagonists Lucas and Anna-Marie at various stages, such as going to the tax office or to their lodgings.

Late 19th-century map of Kingston Upon Hull Old Town with Blastburn road names superimposed

Finally, I’ve drawn up a map of Blastburn in diagrammatic form, using the Old Town’s street plan as a template. You’ll see I’ve made further assumptions: the River Wash — mentioned in the later novel Is (or Is Underground) — takes the place of the Humber estuary, while the River Tidey (which is mentioned here) I’ve laid over the Hull river from which the town takes its usual name, showing where its waters debouche into the estuary.

Blastburn in 1842 (not to scale) with features from Midnight is a Place and Is Underground indicated

Further, as is the case with Kingston, the sites called Strand Gate, Mickle Gate and Brass Gate aren’t physical gateways any more but thoroughfares. When Lucas or Anna-Marie travel from Midnight Court to the town they initially travel the long way round by road, down Strand Gate, passing the cemetery, infirmary and the Midnight mill. Later they discover a short cut from the textile mill through a copse and in through a hidden gap in the estate wall.

(Incidentally, I’ve not been able to note any factories in Hull like Murgatroyd’s Carpet, Rug and Matting Manufactory in Blastburn. However, most of the cotton yarn was apparently produced in the town by two companies, the Hull Flax and Cotton Mill Company, founded in 1836, and the Kingston Cotton Mill Company which dates from a little later, in 1845.)

Continuing down Mickle Gate the pair pass the prison before turning left by the asylum into the road which becomes Market Square. At the corner of the square is a public bathhouse where Lucas can wash after spending the day in the sewers looking for tosh. Further on is the tax office in Brass Gate.

When the youngsters have to leave Midnight Court after the fire they lodge in Haddock Street. Later, when Lucas works in the sewers, he is told the names of the streets he passes under: James Street, the Causeway, Pastry Lane. Near Wharf Lane is Gudgeon’s stranded boat, which is where the reprobate retires to at night.

I’m describing Blastburn at length because the town is mentioned in no less than three of Joan Aiken’s novels, namely The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Midnight is a Place and Is Underground. In the first novel we found that Blastburn is

a place of “great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare,” has huge slag-heaps like “black pyramids” and that it has black and 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.”

Though I haven’t included the bridge in my plan we have to remember that The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appeared in 1962, while the real Humber suspension bridge was only begun in 1972, and not completed till 1981; where the author imagined the position of Blastburn Bridge is hard to gauge precisely.

Around here is where Mrs Gertrude Brisket ran Brisket’s Charity School — a dead ringer for Lowood School in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — located in one of the town’s eastern streets (described in Wolves as on the ‘far outskirts’ of town). Somewhere here too are the midden and spoil heaps, probably on the western banks of the Tidey; this name, though surmised to be related to the North Sea’s tides, may be ironic given the waste and pollution from the local industries, from coal, textiles, soap and so on.

From Wolves we also learn that there are horse-trams in the streets, lit by naphtha lights at midnight: we’re assured Hull had had gas street lighting by 1822 and a local police force by 1836. South of Blastburn and its ‘wide river’ are ‘snow-covered slag-heaps’ and pit wheels and chimneys, all of which eventually give way to fields as the road heads into what would be the Lincolnshire wolds of our world.

I’ve also marked in a railway terminus by where the docks would be: this is roughly where the Hull and Selby Railway ended when completed in 1840, linked to the Leeds and Selby Railway which opened in 1834.

North of the town is Holdernesse Hill… But I’m jumping ahead of myself. When we come to Is Underground we’ll find that there will have been some changes to Blastburn, between 1842 when Midnight opens and a few years later in Is, when we’re told that eruptions from Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano, will cause massive disruptions for Blastburn: in our world such volcanic activity continued from early September 1845 to early April 1846.

And that’s it, for now, as far as Blastburn is concerned, but I shall later be discussing Midnight Court and its grounds, as a substantial part of the novel is set there.

22 thoughts on “Joan Aiken’s Blastburn

    1. I do hope you see the parallels when you come to it. You might catch some echoes of Lowood School should you ever try The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the novel that kicked off the series (which wasn’t intended to be a series, back in 1962), but it’s a children’s classic in its own right.

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        1. I do like it when novels ‘speak’ to each other, as when Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a kind of prequel (though I know Rhys rejigged the chronology) or Rebecca echoes themes in Jane Eyre. As rather superior fan fiction they work well, I think, in addition to being distinctive and of course classics in their own right.

          Joan Aiken was a fan of Austen, so wrote overt sequels to the six Austen novels. Here, however, she is I think less obviously referencing Charlotte (at least, I don’t know if anyone has already pointed out the borrowings) but the Yorkshire setting, the mansion fire and the date chosen (1842, when Charlotte and Emily were off together to Brussels) seem to me to suggest a deliberate play on aspects of Jane Eyre.

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Oh, those dark Satanic mills — Blake certainly set the mood for a great deal of literature, although it probably makes more sense to blame the mills themselves.

    For some reason, I always pictured Blastburn near the Irish Sea rather than the North Sea. I shall have to reset my imagined geography, but your maps make that quite easy.

    And as for your “obscure details” — I’m not sure if that’s where the devil lies, but you’re clearly getting an impish delight from all this ferreting about (is this akin to “messing about with boats”?)

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    1. Blastburn near the Irish Sea? I wonder, Lizzie, if your notion came from an unconscious mash-up of Blackburn (on the Lancashire side of the Pennines) and Blackpool, which is very near the Irish Sea.

      Oh, ferreting is much more vigorous than messing about in boats (at least, the way Ratty and Mole went about the boat-messing): it involved, I suspect still involves, sending one of those vicious creatures down holes in banks to flush out rabbits and the like. To use another metaphor, I could be likened to a dog with a bone. Or an imp with the details!

      And satanic mills: I remember the Midlands in the 70s still wreathed in smoke from factories, power stations and other dirty industries. For better and/or worse they’re pretty much all gone. I’m sure there are parts of the American Midwest much like that, for all the MAGA razzmatazz.

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      1. And New England. Just drove past some former textile mills north of Boston (Lowell, etc.), repurposed as college buildings. A good second life.

        As for Blackpool/Blackburn/Blastburn — you may be right, Chris. You certainly make a strong argument for Hull and the East Riding.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Repurposed rather than demolished is good, though often these buildings, centrally placed in towns and cities, become expensive urban apartments for those who can afford loft living spaces with private parking and spectacular views.

          When we come to Is Underground there’s no question in my mind that Blastburn is near the east coast, with coal mines stretching out under the sea and the mention of Holdernesse (with an ‘e’). 🙂

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    1. I’m inter alia reading Rebecca at the moment, Dale, a slow burn which I’m relishing in small helpings. Though I’ve watched both the film and TV adaption of Brontë’s novel as well as reading all the about it I’ve got the pleasure of the text yet to come, but I have to finish Shirley first!

      Our daughter’s just moved and so your kind offering of books has become partially, er, buried, but hopefully I’ll get to see them in the not too distant future — just in case you thought me ungrateful for not mentioning them before… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a lot of knowledge and research has gone into this post – you are, indeed, the king of ‘ferreting’! Love to imagine Blastburn as Hull, some of those lovely old streets you show on your maps survived the bombings of the second world war and what a great thing to imagine our protagonists there. Must buy a copy of Midnight – the one I read years ago was from the school library 🙂

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    1. King Ferret, hah! I do hope you access a copy of Midnight so you can in your imagination retrace the wanderings of Anna-Marie and Lucas. Is the Cheltenham Road library still functioning? If you’re still working in the area they might be able to requisition a copy, the reprint only came out in 2014 on the fortieth anniversary of its publication.

      Soon I intend to ‘rebuild’ Midnight Court for a future post though there are precious few stately mansions near Hull to serve as possible templates, though Burton Agnes Hall and Burton Constable Hall both look tempting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sadly, the Cheltenham Road library is now a block of flats, but we still have a library in Bedminster, I could order a copy through them. I did my floristry course at Bishop Burton agricultural college not too far from Hull. The college had taken over the ground of Bishop Burton Hall, demolished in the 1950s. It’s thanks to that we had impressive array of mature plants to cut from and use in our work. http://www.lostheritage.org.uk/houses/lh_yorkshire_bishopburtonhall_info_gallery.html

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        1. I’m using Burton Constable Hall, a little to the east of Beverley, as a possible template for Midnight Court. It’s now a hotel, I understand, but it has the grandeur and the kind of floor plan that Aiken’s mansion seems to have. As it can’t be too far from Bishop Burton I wonder if you ever visited it, Lynn?

          A shame the old building where your college was went the way of so many structures after the war: it looked rather handsome but possibly too expensive to maintain, as many of them were. Thanks for the link, the site looks worth further exploring.

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