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 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.
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.
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.