I was recently reminded of the links between commuting and a sense of place in another context. At the weekend, I spoke to a friend about his regular commute by bicycle from Watlington, Oxfordshire, to Lewknor and from there by coach on into London.
The route from Lewknor bus stop to Watlington
He told an amusing anecdote concerning an unfortunate and rather strange experience from the preceding week. This entailed an unusually late disembarkation from the coach at Lewknor, whereupon a 3-mile journey cross-country on foot ensued, complete with the authorities in hot pursuit. A number of extraneous factors had played against him in this context including the untimely misplacing of his mobile phone earlier in the day, the happenstance lack of his usual bike to ride, his choice of footwear and its relative unsuitability for an unexpected midnight ramble, as well as the bizarre case of mistaken identity that led to the arrival of a police helicopter and patrol car on the scene.
So, how does this connect to the Sense of Place project? This surreal comedy of errors further highlighted to me our ever-present reliance on material culture and on the technologies of everyday life. It also underlined the fact that even the places that we pass on a daily basis are capable of becoming rapidly alien to us in the right (or in this case, wrong) circumstances. In short, my friend was in the wrong place at very much the wrong time, became embroiled in a person hunt that was inherently linked to that neighbourhood albeit not in any real sense to him, and he simply didn’t have the requisite equipment to ease his eventual, if somewhat dishevelled, return to the safety of home. A phone with which to call a taxi, a bike to speed his return, or a less ridiculous pair of shoes might each have helped in some small way. Suffice to say he now understands that winklepickers and muddy rural terrain don’t mix (and just as a curatorial aside, perhaps some patten’s might have been more effective, or maybe even some mudboards)!
Professor Simon Dentith recently delivered a talk as part of the MERL Seminar series entitled Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides’: country writing at a time of change, in which he drew interesting parallels between the early 19th century travel writing of William Cobbett and the more recent exploits of the writer Will Self. This comparison was rich with insight into the complexity of literary explorations of the landscape, as well as of the places encountered along the way. For me this raised interesting questions about the rich seam of material referents that are so key to the construction of ideas about the rural past and the rural present.
As part of the project we have been giving some consideration to the ways in which ramblers and walkers might wish to explore the MERL collections, perhaps making use of online resources whilst out in the landscape itself. I was reminded of this (and of Simon Dentith’s talk) when I spoke just now to Felicity Ford about a project that she is currently undertaking with her partner Mark Stanley, entitled Walk2012. This will see them walk, not out of London as Will Self did, but into the Olympic capital, recording and charting the things they encounter on the way. As part of their exciting project they walked through a landscape that reminded them of this Museum and of things they had seen during a recent guided tour of the galleries. What more perfect a justification for the Sense of Place project could there be?
Felicity has already commented on the ‘Hefting’ posts on this blog, offering further endorsement of my hill farming metaphor. I very much hope she will continue to contribute to this discussion as Walk2012 progresses.