As part of a new project, I took a walk to Headington, going via the house where I grew up. I haven’t walked around that area for many years and was quite surprised at how run down it appeared to be, particularly my old house. Of course places change – it’s only natural, but many houses and gardens in what was once a very well maintained street looked – for want of a better word – shabby. Like a lot of places nowadays, the front gardens have been abandoned, either to cars or, through apathy, to the weeds. Walls and fences have been torn down. They’ve collapsed or been removed. There’s a profusion of signs too – a common complaint for many – which litter the streets; a far cry from the 1970s and 80s.
I was also aware as I walked of the huge increase in traffic in the area, at least since I’d lived there, particularly towards Old Headington which, I assume has something to do with the ever expanding John Radcliffe Hospital.
It was on my way to Old Headington that I became aware of two different qualities of memory – not specific ones as such, but those accumulated memories which help us know where we are. I’ve walked thousands of times up and down the streets where I lived (to and from school; to and from the shops), but on the road towards Old Headington my memories are much more of being driven, usually on my way to my Nan’s in the back of Dad’s car. Walking the street today, I noticed things that I’d never seen before whereas walking down the street on which I lived everything was much more familiar (even though they’d changed). This difference is due to the way memories of these places were formed. Of the street on which I lived they were formed, in the main, through walking. On the road to Old Headington, they were formed, again in the main, through a window in the back of the car.
As we walk, we accumulate a sense of place through the memories which are stored in the mind. These images are stronger and clearer when taken in through walking, and indeed when recalled through walking. The slower the pace (although not to the point of a standstill) the more we absorb of the world and thereby the better our sense of place.
The world today, or rather our interaction with and indeed within it is very ‘nodal’. We travel from A to B, usually (but not always) as quickly as we can. The bit in between A and B is taken up, in the case of the car, with looking at the road ahead of us. I should point out that I am in no way anti-car, anti-train or anti-plane; I rely on them as anyone does; my point is that we rely on them far too much at the expense of our engagement with the world around us.
When we walk from A to B however, we don’t ‘get’ just A and B but everything in between. The act of walking ‘anchors’ our destination and the place from which we travel, positioning them in the world. We have time to think, to see and to accumulate a sense of place. We have time to engage with the world and thereby position ourselves within it.
Whilst studying the Old London Road for another project, I began to get an understanding of how slowing our life down helps us to engage with the world around us. I also became aware of how roads today are much different to those in the past. Journeys were slower and roads were very much more a connection between two places. This may sound like a truism, but what I mean is that today, one could travel for mile after mile on roads without actually getting anywhere at all. Destination is not something built into the fabric of the road – something which I felt was very much the case on the Old London Road. Again I should point out that I am not in favour (were it possible) of a return to bumpy, uncomfortable, 16 hour journeys to London.
When the pace of life was slower, when people walked more than they did, I wonder whether their sense of place in the world was different (physical as opposed to social). Again I don’t want to sound as if I’m being naively romantic about the past – it was often grim and difficult to say the very least, but I do think it must have been the case that the world was perceived very differently, not because of the lack of technologies such as the camera, the internet, film or television per se, but because of the pace. Technology of course is a contributing factor to the increased pace of life (and not just through transport). Increasingly we use our mobile phones or email to contact one another (and a great thing both of them are too). But again, this form of contact reduces the world to nodes, to A and B. In the days before such technologies (even when phones were abundant – this applies to a time not so long ago) if we wanted to speak with someone, we would go to meet them, or write them a letter. Either way, our words were physical; they had a place in the world; it wasn’t just about A to B but, as with walking, A through to B.
I think what I’ve gleaned through my ramblings – both physical and verbal – is that we are missing the bits in between. Everything is being reduced to A, B and C. Where there are bit in between, they are little more than a hinterland, glimpses of which we snatch as we travel along roads, motorways, train tracks or even through the air. This brings me back to the houses of which I spoke earlier. They have the appearance, even to the walker, of something that is seen in transit, at speed. Even if one looks for a period of time at one of the houses I saw today (again by no means all of them) it’s as if one is looking through the window of a passing car.