Walking into place
A research method
If you had asked me about walking a few years ago I’d have said, ‘yes, I enjoy a walk - it’s great exercise.’ I would never have considered it a research method. Well, since working on my PhD I’ve had to do quite a lot of walking to gather my source material, and I realise that there is more to a stroll than first thought. Walking has become a crucial factor in my Place Writing practice.
I take more notice of my walking as I go out and back to the locations I use in my research. I’ve walked at different times of day and in all seasons and weather conditions. I take photos as visual reminders and record notes to capture my thoughts. I’ve even walked in the middle of the night to get the full experience. And afterwards, as I reflect on this practice, I try to think deeply about the walks before writing about them. To give you an idea of what I mean I’ll quote from Christopher Tilley’s ‘London’s Urban Landscape’ (2019) in which he says in the introductory pages that a ‘powerful strand in the kind of research undertaken in this book is the humble act of walking to acquire knowledge of places through our limbs’ (p26). So it’s not just about what you see on a walk but also what you feel—it’s a mindful and sensory pursuit.
I’ve had to question what type of walking can be considered research and came to the following conclusions. Whether the walk is undertaken in an urban or country setting, and whether it is in a familiar or unfamiliar location, in order for it to be relevant to Place Writing it needs to be a repetitive action and deliberate. So, if walking is to be a method of research, it precludes the occasional unplanned ramble and the single journey from A to B.
Going from home to my local park I follow the same route, varying it only a little when I decide where to cross the road or which entrance to use as I enter the park. Here is a snippet of my writing about this walk.
‘It was a freezing spring in 2021. Blooms that would normally bob about happily in cool breezes hesitated, desiccated; they would decline early, their life predetermined by the weather and the willingness of the grass-cutters to leave them be. I was at the half-way point from home to the park and, in that moment, I grieved for the yellow trumpets.’
Sometimes walking into and through place is accomplished over a long timespan. For instance, in a section of his book titled ‘Writing the city’, Tilley comments on the work of the well-known place writer, Iain Sinclair, saying that his ‘best writings are about Hackney (2009), where he has himself lived and walked since 1968. He provides a vivid and, in many ways, extraordinary perspective on the borough, written and researched for over a decade’ (p43). If you’ve never read any of Sinclair’s work, here’s a taster from that book (p10):
‘Taking the right fork, into Albion Drive, brings me under the scratchy abundance of a fig tree that overhangs the pavement, heavy with sour-green grenades, polyps, empurpled fruit testicles.’
Such expressive writing is something I aspire to. I can appreciate the weight of those figs, can you?
Do you enjoy reading about walking? What books do you recommend?
I look forward to chatting with you in the comments!
Bye for now!
Credits & Links:
Photos are my own.
Tilley, C. (ed.). 2019. London’s Urban Landscape: Another Way of Telling. Published by UCL Press. An open access version of this is available here.
Sinclair, I. (2009) Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Published by Hamish Hamilton.
Place Writing is more than just a newsletter, it’s a resource. I went into the archive and found these two posts which I think you’ll enjoy. They’ll help you gain a broader perspective of Place Writing. If either of these posts resonate with you, the comments are still open so please add your thoughts to the discussion.
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