Picture the past beneath our feet

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Art and heritage come together in a project that is putting Salford children in touch with their roots, reports Harvey McGavin

There's a lot going on in Eccles. Judging from the newspapers pinned up in the reception of St Mary's RC primary school, this part of Salford has been the scene of some incredible events recently. "Plane crash - big shock!"

announces one. "Boulder falls on train," says another. And, believe it or not, "Queen blown up!"

In reality, nothing so unfortunate has befallen the people of Eccles. The Daily Inquisition, the Cronical Daily and the rest are figments of Year 6's imagination. But something quite dramatic has been happening at St Mary's that will record this place and the people in it for generations to come.

Under Our Street is a local history project with a difference. Rather than visiting museums or reading about the past in books, Year 1 pupils at St Mary's have been making history, assembling their highly individual impressions of their surroundings. The rhyme that reminds them what the project is all about begins each lesson: "Everyone and everything has a story So let's dig deep And see what stories we can find Under our street."

As the city that gave Coronation Street, LS Lowry and Mike Leigh to the world, Salford has a reputation for realism. But these days, Salford lives in the shadow of its flashier neighbour, Manchester.

Under Our Street is an attempt to reclaim some of Salford's heritage by making a unique inventory of the city's identity as seen through the eyes of its schoolchildren - assisted not by historians but by artists, photographers and writers. Christine Hope and Howard Fisher are the artists accompanying the children of St Mary's on their journey of discovery.

"It's all about what their world means for them: how things change, how it affects them, their culture and identity within the wider world," says Ms Hope. "I tell them, 'You could go to another school across the road and they wouldn't be able to recreate this; this is about you'."

The project began, as all historical investigations should, with some research. The children set off to explore their school grounds and town centre, digitally photographing places and objects that meant something to them. The landmarks they chose - the block of flats where granddad lives, the shops, an old statue, a broken post, a hedgehog, the PE cupboard - were indicative of their limited experience and boundless imaginations.

These trips were the fieldwork for the next stage of the project: mapmaking. With their abstract symbols and unfathomable scale, you wouldn't want to use these maps to find your way. But as the children pore over these 6ft-square sheets of paper, plastered with photographs, random words, drawings, and bold lines of marker pen, it is clear that these junior cartographers have created something with a logic all its own. The links they have drawn are as much emotional as physical, bringing together the familiar and comforting terrain of home and school. On their map, a piece of toast or a back garden is more prominent than the M602 flyover that bisects the city.

Throughout the project, the children's written and spoken words, photography and artwork have been digitally recorded by Ms Hope and Mr Fisher, who will assemble them on a CD for posterity. "It will be a record of their time at school," says Ms Hope. The artists have become curators, but they began the project with an open mind and no idea where it would go.

"Many of the sessions have come about from something one of the children might have said the week before," says Mr Fisher. "It's closer to the way I work as an artist; there's a central idea or theme but no fixed idea about the outcome. The way you get there is part of the fun."

Ms Hope says the undoubted popularity of the project (she and Mr Fisher are met with a cheer as they walk into class) is down to the children feeling free to express themselves without the pressure of being right or wrong.

"We have tried not to define 'this is writing time, this is when we do art'," she says. For them as artists it has been "an organic way of working". And for the children, says Mr Fisher: "It's about using art as a way of getting people to have confidence in their own ideas."

At Buile Hill high school, a couple of miles away in Salford itself, local history was unfolding before the eyes of pupils well before the Under Our Street project began. Between Buile Hill and the docks lies a tightly packed network of flat-fronted, terraced houses: the Langworthy and Seedley estates. Anyone who has seen the film East is East will recognise them. But the bustling community of the film has largely gone. When the shipping trade disappeared, most of the subsequent redevelopment money went on quayside flats and offices, and the Langworthy was left high and dry.

Today it is in the middle of a huge programme of urban regeneration and upheaval. Hundreds of houses are being refurbished, hundreds more demolished and a few streets are being transformed into trendy open-plan, mews-style dwellings. Roads that have been brightened up with new windows and hanging baskets lead on to derelict ground where houses once stood.

Nearby, entire streets are boarded up with steel shutters, but for a single house - usually the home of someone trapped in negative equity and unhappy with the council's offer of compensation. In the 1980s these houses sold for Pounds 30,000 or more, but their value plummeted to less than a third of that amount, with some estate agents resorting to "buy two, get one free" offers.

It's difficult to estimate the effect of living in the midst of this upheaval -as around half of Buile Hill's pupils do - on your ideas of who you are and where you live. But that's the aim of Under Our Street.

When a Year 8 class is asked to list what they like about the area and what they would change, bricks and mortar is a recurrent theme. Houses are "old and nasty" or "too small"; "snobby people" live in "posh houses". But almost everyone likes "my house" and "my neighbours". When they are asked to record their impressions of the area, a more lyrical picture emerges, of a wall "like sandpaper fresh from the packet" or a car "like the angry lion who missed his prey".

Fittingly, for a community being dismantled and put together again, they have been making photographic montages in the style of David Hockney to piece together fragments of a neighbourhood in flux. Art teacher Dan Glenister, an Essex lad who studied at Salford University and liked it so much he stayed, believes the project is helping his pupils look afresh at their area. "I want them to understand they don't live in a horrible place," he says.

He also hopes the project - funded by Creative Partnerships - will expand children's horizons. Through trips to the Royal Exchange Theatre and an art gallery to see the work of playwright Amanda Dalton and photographer Paul Floyd Blake, some of them will be coming into contact with practising artists for the first time. And when the cast and crew from Ms Dalton's play Dogboy come into the school for a question-and-answer session, some of the pupils are already considering the rewards of a career on the stage.

"How much do you earn?" is the first question.

"It's been great. It's allowed me to meet other creative people and look at new ways of working - different approaches, different styles. It's professional development," says Mr Glenister, whose multi-layered paintings are inspired by the changing face of Salford. "For most of them this will be the first time they have met an actor," he adds. "I want them to see art in context; that you do it because you love it and not just for the exam grade."

Even though the Buile Hill project represents just a few days out of their five-year school career, he reckons its legacy will last much longer. "They won't realise how much they got out of it until much later - maybe not until they leave school," he says. "Things like this you remember."


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