john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Mapping an urban parish

    A paper for the Urban Theology Unit
    Institute for Urban and Contextual Theology
    15 July 2004

    As a new incumbent priest in a new parish, seeking to understand the shape and concerns of the community, I have embarked on a programme with two strands:

    Active listening on pastoral visits, in places of contact, during involvement in community groups, to representatives of agencies active in the area;

    Parish walks, using various methods and routes, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied. These I regard as active walking; mentally engaged with the intention of recording observations and impressions gained en-route, to help build a picture over time, of the parish and the relationship of the people and the place.

    In both cases I journal my observations, in the case of walks I use my website to share what I've seen, inviting readers' comments back.

    In this paper I shall focus on the walks, their influences and methodology, with particular reference to Common Ground, Iain Sinclair, Patrick Keiller, Bill Drummond, Jean Grant (Site-Sight), Wrights & Sites and their Exeter Mis-Guide.

    Common Ground

    Common Ground is internationally recognised for playing a unique role in the arts and environmental fields, distinguished by the linking of nature with culture, focussing upon the positive investment people can make in their own localities, championing popular democratic involvement, and by inspiring celebration as a starting point for action to improve the quality of our everyday places. [They] offer ideas, information and inspiration through publications such as Field Days - an anthology of poetry about fields; Flora Britannica - the definitive encyclopaedia of contemporary British plant life; and projects such as Apple Day; Tree Dressing Day; Community Orchards; Confluence - a three year project to help and encourage people to create new music for the River Stour; Parish Maps and the campaign for Local Distinctiveness. [1]

    The activities of Common Ground have a mostly rural focus, but my instinct has always been that much of their work and approach overlaps usefully with urban situation. Particularly around local distinctiveness - that which is special or unique to a particular place.

    Local Distinctiveness

    The concept of local distinctiveness ... is characterised by elusiveness, it is instantly recognizable yet difficult to describe; It is simple yet may have profound meaning to us. It demands a poetic quest and points up the shortcomings in all those attempts to understand the things around us by compartmentalising them, fragmenting, quantifying, reducing.

    Local distinctiveness is essentially about places and our relationship with them. It is as much about the commonplace as about the rare, about the everyday as much as the endangered, and about the ordinary as much as the spectacular. In other cultures it might be about people's deep relationship with the land. Here discontinuities have left us with vestiges of appreciation but few ways of expressing the power which places can have over us. But many of us have strong allegiances to places, complex and compound appreciation of them, and we recognize that nature, identity and place have strong bonds.

    We sometimes forget that ours is a cultural landscape. It is our great creation: underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stonewalls and subsidies, ragas and Northumbrian pipes, Wensleydale sheep and halal butchers, whiskies of Islay and Fenland skies, bungalows and synagogues, pubs and the Padstow Obby' Oss, round barrows and rapping, high streets and Ham stone, laver bread and Devon lanes, door details and dialect.

    - to which, of course, I would add the No. 14 bus route and building sites, the Broadway shopping precinct and Wayne Rooney. And you will have in mind images of your own cultural landscape.

    Places are process and story as well as artefact, layer upon layer of our continuing history and nature's history intertwined.

    Places offer an exposition of their evolution, given sensitive development and barefoot education, everyplace is its own living museum, dynamic and filled with sensibilities to its own small richnesses. These are places we know when we are in them. Meaning is entrapped in the experience of change, symbolisms and significance cling to seemingly ordinary buildings, trees, artefacts.

    Particularity based in nature on the foundations of geology and climate, has diverged with the alchemy of life, the articulation of the social and economic demands of successive societies, the narratives of myth and legend, and the ethical and cultural variations over the time. Places are different from each other.

    I find great richness in this approach - and the endless possibilities it offers for investigation of an area. It's an invitation, I think, to look at your place more closely, to look at your place more deliberately. Which is what I set out to do on these parish walks. It's usual to walk around a place disengaged, with your mind on other things, eyes and feet working on a purely functional level to get from A to B.

    When you have lived or worked in a place for a long time you may cease to notice it unless something happens to jolt you. It might be the sun glinting on a stone wall revealing the fossils in it, discovering that the street name cheap indicates a market place which explains the wide pavements, the felling of an ancient and much loved tree which makes you look more closely at the remaining mature trees in the place.

    The parish walks are deliberate attempts to be jolted into observation.

    Common Ground's genesis is in rural lore and activity but, as I said earlier, their work does translate usefully into urban situations.

    Local distinctiveness is not necessarily about beauty, but it must be about truth.

    This connects with biblical imperatives towards truth-seeking; and in that project I have found some unexpected fellow-travellers who take up their notepads, pocket cameras and walk around urban spaces recording their observations in search of their truths, whose various approaches to this task inform mine.

    Iain Sinclair

    A celebrated contemporary writer. His subject is London - to his novels and his travelogues he brings a lifetime of intense observation, often about the less beautiful side of the city and its inhabitants. In the mid-nineties he published Lights Out For the Territory, where he walked the 'territory' he had made his own, the streets and rivers of inner London, exploring their hidden associations and connections. He followed that up in Millennium year with a more challenging, less immediately attractive - but actually, incredibly fascinating - project: London Orbital, in which he set out to walk the vast stretch of urban settlement outside London, by tracing on foot, counter-clockwise, the land immediately around the M25 motorway.

    To give you a sense of his style, his descriptions of the minutiae of neglected English life he observes, here is an extract from a morning spent on the industrial outskirts of Watford. Among the sheds of scrap metal and recycling merchants Sinclair discovers a fine eatery:

    Our breakfast, in the Mad Max kingdom of these war lords of waste, is a treat. A caravan, an awning, white plastic tables. Strip-lighting on the strobe. A large lady with big gold rings in her ears. And a face as featureless as a satellite dish. Eggs in their dozens, ready to break into the pan. Pink and yellow notices with handwritten specialities of the house: TOASTED SANDWICH VARIOUS FILLING FROM 1.50. In France this vehicle would have appeared in half a dozen movies. In California it would (as a replica) have its own gag-a-minute TV series.

    We swill our mugs of near-coffee, lick our plates and congratulate ourselves on being somewhere we'll never find again; a morning epiphany among stacked containers, long sheds. The best of England: close to a canal path, close to allotments, close to a football stadium, faces deep into a (2.50) 'big breakfast' in a culture that only does breakfasts.

    Sinclair's approach seems to agree with Common Ground who encourage us to appreciate the edges, those places where different habitats meet,

    ... in town some streets are dominated by small Indian shops and others by big chain stores, the area of greatest fascination may well be where they overlap.

    And this and Sinclair's prose also echoes Roger Deakin who has written,

    At the "margins", the connections between people and place are most evident and easily discernible. [3]

    Seeing the margins not as risky or unattractive places, but rather as the best places to go to find truth, I think resonates with Jesus' approach to the places he chose to walk in, and encourages me on my walks to seek out hidden, rejected and unexpected routes.

    Patrick Keiller

    Architect turned filmmaker who turns his camera onto hidden parts of England making unusual connections between economics, politics and culture, which, again, reveal much. His 1997 film Robinson in Space is a journey through England, from Reading to Newcastle upon Tyne, which takes in many industrial sites and dockland areas and features a narration which with gentle irony reveals a lot about these places and the culture in which they sit:

    The day we arrived in Derby, Rolls-Royce announced half-year profits up 43 per cent to 70 million, though the chairman would not rule out more job losses, and the shares fell 8 per cent.

    'The English are acknowledged world leaders in fetishism and S&M,' Robinson read in the paper. 'The only company in the world that makes latex sheeting suitable for fetishwear is based in Derbyshire...'

    We wanted to visit Robin Hood's Well, near Eastwood, but the wood had been fenced off by the owner.

    What I learn from Keiller is the value of researching the place's economic circumstances which can reveal all manner of things ... and to permit idiosyncrasies, to allow humour and failure to inform the act of observation.

    The important thing is that the walk is always a conscious act of observation. I love the quote of Oscar Wilde which Keiller uses:

    It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible...

    ... which as I understand it, is fine incarnational theology.

    Bill Drummond

    Artist and provocateur , famously the man who, with Jimmy Cauty as the KLF, on 23 August 1994 burned 1 million of their own cash in notes and then toured the home movie of the burning around the UK's village halls, arts centres, prisons, schools, mental health drop-in centres, anarchist societies, craft fayres, and even Republic Square Belgrade, asking the audience, "Why did we do it?"

    Drummond is a walker - he has toyed with the idea of walking the length of the M62, echoing Sinclair's M25 odyssey. I have learned from him to embrace bravery and/or stupidity in planning on-foot activities which search after truth. And also some methodology - beginning with the event he organised whilst manager of Echo and the Bunnymen in 1984, a day of Bunnymen-related activities in Liverpool including a hike around the city centre following a route which Drummond had determined by tracing the outline of a rabbit - Echo, the band's symbol - onto a map of the city centre, the manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street serving as Echo's navel.

    Drummond remembers this as being one of the day's "apparently meaningless, if entertaining, events. Of course, to me they weren't meaningless; each event dripped heavily with ritualistic symbolism." [5]

    This served as my introduction to a field of activity I later understood as being part of the practice of psychogeography. Walking purposefully-prescribed routes connecting aspects of the walkers' memory or experience, or the place's history, for instance, to the ground being trod. Being determined to make connections, find meanings along the way, and being entirely open to the consequences of anything that may happen en-route.

    Psychogeography has a serious, sometimes academic, spiritual and for some practitioners, occult side, but it does not preclude seeking truth or having fun. To me it sits alongside the recent revival of interest in labyrinths, not least in Christian circles, which also utilise a prescribed journey as a means to spiritual discovery. And it can be seen to relate to more populist pursuits such as guided city tours for tourists and local enthusiasts.

    Jean Grant / Site-Sight

    In Liverpool I have become interested in the activities of artist Jean Grant, "a leading exponent, working in the specialised field of site specific and environmental art."

    "Artists," she says, "have always been acknowledged as observers and commentators on society. That everyone has a creative sensory understanding of their environment Site-sight's aim is to be the open eye of its clients, be they large corporations or small communities."

    Her work has included a multi-media installation examination of our changing perception and uses of walking for a peoples history museum; turning a mile of dereliction into a measured mile of wild flowers; involving teenagers to re-assess ways of preventing litter and trespass by innovative possibilities of thorn bushes and their planting; organising walks where local people follow the course of forgotten inner-city streams; planting a peace garden beneath the Anglican Cathedral (the only public collection of wild roses in the country); running a series of urban picnics where local folk, architects, artists, environmentalists have sat together (in unusual urban picnic sites) discussing how to transform underused or derelict land into friendly spaces.

    Jean's work goes under the banner Site-Sight, a project "Using art to create a richer enjoyment, understanding and involvement in our surroundings as an integral part of our everyday lives," and her current work involves walking. The Pool Project is an exploration of Liverpool's tidal pool, one of the city's lost routes. She writes:

    The pool is the reason for the city's being, the emotional, geographic, and historic heart of Liverpool. The tidal pool's course still delineates the city's structure, its movement patterns and spatial qualities. It is however concealed from both the view and the consciousness of those who travel its route. [6]

    Jean launched The Pool Project with a walk which traced the underground waterway, stimulating debate and triggering further activities to recover a part of the city which has been hidden for many years. The immediate appeal for me is that this is a Liverpool project; underlying that is the encouragement to look at the historical connections in the city between natural features and human land use, and how the shape and quality of the land still impacts on today's urban experience.

    Wrights & Sites

    Wrights & Sites is a group of four performance makers, committed to producing experimental, site-specific work. An artist-led alliance based in Exeter, we have a wide range of experience, working in diverse contexts: theatres; galleries; community and educational arenae; urban sites and landscapes. Formalised in 1997, the four Core Members (Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, Phil Smith & Cathy Turner) have been working together, in various permutations, for many years.

    An Exeter Mis-Guide is the company's current project. We aim to create a mytho-geographical guidebook for the City of Exeter, which places the experience of the reader (past & present) at its centre.

    The Exeter Mis-Guide was published in 2003, and rightly describes itself as "like no other guides you have ever used before."

    Rather than telling you where to go and what to see, a Mis-Guide gives you the ways to see your town or city that no one else has found yet. A Mis-Guide is both a forged passport to your 'other' city and a new way of travelling a very familiar one. An essential part of the toolkit of any 21st Century urban survivor.

    A Mis-Guide takes the form of a guide book. It suggests a series of walks and points of observation and contemplation within a particular town or city. It is no ordinary guide book. It is guided by the practice of mytho-geography, which places the fictional, fanciful, fragile and personal on equal terms with 'factual', municipal history. Author and walker become partners in ascribing significance to place.

    The work of Wrights and Sites, and the Mis-Guide in particular, have helped me develop methodologies for approaching walks designed to map the parish, in a variety of ways.

    Their suggested methods include allowing a dog to take you for a walk; drifting (following your feelings or a repeated system - first left, second right, first right etc); following a compass course; allowing a child to take you for a walk; going to extremes (from the lowest place to the highest place, the ugliest place to the most beautiful place, the saddest place to the happiest place, etc); beating the bounds, among many others.

    The outcome of reading the Mis-Guide, even without visiting Exeter, is to have the imagination stimulated to include many forms of active walking in my own exercise of mapping an urban parish.

    I append a list of the walks I have done and intend to do as part of my programme of mapping my parish: the influence of those quoted above may be detected in the various approaches taken, or the subsequent written record. I also append, as example of that, a write-up of my second parish walk on 1st June 2004. [9]

    APPENDIX 1 - Methodology

    Walks I have done

    In Liverpool I have undertaken a variety of 'drifting' walks over recent years, recording the route and impressions in word and photographs.

    In formulating a programme of active walking as part of my exercise of mapping an urban parish I have adopted the following method:

    1. Photocopy a map of the parish;
    2. Cut the copy into squares using the map grid;
    3. Fold these and place them into a box.
    4. At the outset of each walk, draw a square out of the box to determine the starting point of the walk;
    5. This (along with other factors) will suggest a route, a theme and/or a method. For example, my first walk was on a rogation day and the square drawn was at a 'corner' of the parish - so I opted to do a walk along the parish boundary.

    So far I have completed and recorded three walks and should complete ten by the end of the year. The date and time of them are pre-planned to enable a variety of seasons, days in the week and times of day.

    Walks I plan to do

    In conjunction with a local primary school - walks with children, following their routes to their favourite places, most frightening places, etc;

    In partnership with a local historian - a people's history route;

    In partnership with a local poet - a descriptive route;

    An A-B-C walk (using the Common Ground method of 'making an A-B-C of your place');

    A landscape walk - with a local geographer to look at the relationship between the land and the people over the years;

    others as they suggest themselves, will doubtless emerge....

    [1] Clifford, S, King, A, Losing your place in Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
    [2] Sinclair, I: London Orbital
    [3] Deakin, R, A Local Habitation and a Name in Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
    [4] Keiller, P: Robinson in Space
    [5] Drummond, B: 45
    [6] Grant, J, Site-Site website
    [7] Wrights and Sites website
    [8] Mis-Guide website
    [9] See blog of 1st June 2004