An Academic Goes Back to his Roots – all in a day’s work: the reminiscence of an estate surveyor

Dr Paul Greenhalgh. Professor of Real Estate and Regeneration in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at Northumbria University reminisces on his early career working as an estate surveyor for British Rail

My patch was South Yorkshire and what a lovely patch it was! You can perhaps understand why I have since carved out a reputation for doing research into urban regeneration because if you want to see proper brownfield regeneration then you have to come to South Yorkshire. I still vividly recall some of the ‘lovely’ brownfield sites that I used to manage, at Grimethorpe, Wath upon Dearne and Manvers. I particularly remember going on one of my first site inspections, as a junior surveyor, with my boss, to Grimethorpe (an apt moniker at the time). I was driving a hire car (I guess my boss wanted to be chauffeured around for the day and see how the keen young graduate surveyor coped).  We had a list of site inspections to complete and one of them was at Grimethorpe Colliery when it was still a working colliery. I drove through the colliery gates and headed towards the bit of land that we owned, which was right at the back of the colliery. To get to it I had to drive onto and along a railway track. Now you might think that is physically impossible to drive along a railway track in a car, but because of all the coal dust, the ground level was at the top of the rails. So, there I was, within just weeks of starting my career in surveying, and I am driving a car along an operational railway line! I said to my boss, “we are allowed to do this, right?” He told me just to keep going, presumably in the hope of avoiding meeting a train coming in the opposite direction. What an introduction to estate surveying that was.

Then it got even better………

One of my most memorable days ever working as a surveyor was in the summer of 1991. I had to do a track walk of a non-operational branch line that ran up the Dearne Valley, between Wath upon Dearne and Barnsley. I was negotiating the sale of the redundant line, on behalf of British Rail, to Barnsley Council, for a Sustrans cycle path. The council’s surveyor and I spent a glorious summer’s day walking the line from east to west up the valley. We were spotting liabilities, such as culverts and bridges, and noting any encroachments. Conveniently there was a pub situated half way along the route for lunch which made a perfect day out of the office.

Whilst this was a delightful experience, there were other more scary incidents. I soon learnt that one should always bring along a clip board when doing site inspections, particularly when chasing up rent arrears. There was an occasion when, as I was knocking on the front door of a terraced house in a remote rural area, that I heard a dog start barking. That’s OK, I thought, it sounds like it is in the back garden. Then I saw a large Alsatian dog appear round the end of the terrace and start running towards me. I held my sturdy clip board in front of me as a shield to fend it off, whilst screaming for someone to help. Fortunately, the dog’s owners were upstairs in the house and the window was open, so they managed to shout out to the dog not to devour me on the spot. I was still shaking as they came to the door to apologise (I can’t recall whether they paid the rent arrears).

The clip board also came in useful when doing inspections along the Princess Street Arches in Attercliffe (interesting fact: this is where stainless steel was invented) in the Don Valley in Sheffield. At the time, before Sheffield Development Corporation cleaned the area up, there were loads of car repairers and second hand car salesmen in the arches. Some had guard dogs, but others had another far more fearsome creature – guard geese! They are much worse than Alsatian dogs; their beaks are just at that sort of ‘dangerous’ height and they always seemed to have the cold ‘assassin’s stare’ in their eyes. But the malicious guard geese of Attercliffe were not the scariest guard animal I encountered. There used to be a scrap yard in Cudworth, near the Redfearn glass factory, that didn’t have guard dogs; they didn’t have guard geese; they had a guard lion! Apparently, the scrap yard owner had bought the poor thing from a travelling circus. That is one sure fire way to keep the annoying landlord’s surveyor away.

You might think it rather strange for someone to hold such fond memories of blighted and damaged urban areas, but I found these places and the people associated with them to have a certain charm, character and integrity that is strangely beguiling. This fascination with the grain of urban areas is, in part, what sustains my interest and passion for urban regeneration to this day.

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