What are hilltops for? – a short walk with Michel de Certeau to the land beyond pavements
April 21, 2012 Leave a comment
A family bereavement unexpectedly brought me back to Torquay this week, and gave me the chance to revisit some of my old childhood haunts. This essay describes a walk that I undertook one evening, and presents it as a reflection upon the creative meaning-making practice of walking and exploring edgeland hills and humps.
Here, I will be presenting (and acknowledging) a form of ‘urban exploration’ that nods towards rambling, local history and psychogeography, but in which incursion and any physical endeavour was incidental and truly pedestrian.
Two views from the park
In the morning I had an hour free between various arrangement-making appointments and set off to reacquaint myself with a much loved childhood park. Strolling the hillside I climbed to a highpoint to take in a sea view that I knew would open up for me there. I’d spent many happy afternoons at the park with school friends searching with equal measures of enthusiasm and self-referential irony for UFOs and for farmers who might have spare buildings that we might be invited to build dens in. We found neither (and never really expected to). I’d also come to this vantage point with my (now recently deceased) grandmother, many times to watch firework displays over the bay.
As I wandered around recalling these happy memories and their embededness in this place, I remembered that if I turned 180 degrees, to look away from the sea and towards the extremely rolling hills that undulated inland from this point, I would see a building on the horizon that had always captivated me, and which possibly is the origin point of the bunkerological urges that have (re) surfaced in my research activities in recent years.
What I searched momentarily for, and then re-found, was a mile-distant hilltop structure comprising a large door, sheltered by dull grey revetments, flanked on either side by steep grassed banks. Standing thus on the far hilltop horizon the structure looks like a decapitated Mayan pyramid crossed with a Neolithic burial mound. To my once young mind, it had always looked like a bunker, specifically a Greenham Common-like hardened cruise missile silo.
As a child I’d been fascinated by this place sitting at the edge of my known world. I had freedom to roam the suburban fields beyond this park, but not as far as this structure – for it sat amidst the dual carriageway of the town’s ring-road, an area beyond the realm of pavements.
But now, as an adult, I was free to make my way there and finally meet this structure.
Beyond the realm of pavements
Planning for my evening expedition, the most obvious route towards this structure was to follow the arterial road out west towards the ring-road. The sun was already low in the sky. Following the road I soon reached the end of pavement, precariously continuing onward on along the verge, past makeshift accident-shrines (the cars were whizzing along this stretch) and toward the din of the dual carriageway.
And soon, there it was. The humped bunker, and its door section, all fenced off from access and replete with security signs, barbed wire and overgrown remnants of previous boundary technologies (walls, ditches, pre-fencing and anti-personnel shrubbery).
By the time of my arrival the sun was low (but still quite strong), the door now in shade. Rubbish conditions for getting a classy urbex shot. But I duly snooped around, clambered up a prickly bank and tried to see any sign of what these structures (for now I could see that there was more than one mound) actually were. But, I couldn’t get through.
As I stumbled back down to the verge I was conscious of being the only person at large in this auto-world. Cars sped past, I avoided eye contact with the humans inside, trying to make my verge wandering as innocuous as possible.
The building and its signs didn’t tell me this, but these ‘bunkers’ are actually covered service reservoirs, supplying the town’s water needs. They are covered because the water has already been treated to drinking water standard and needs to be protected against contamination. But if they are covered why the evident physical concern with preventing unauthorised access at the perimeter? Is Torquay really at risk of ‘fifth columnists’ with evil intent to poison the water supply?
The uses of hilltops
The reservoir is here, on Torquay’s highest hilltop for simple practical infrastructural reasons. Much as a ‘header’ tank needs to be at the top of a house so that gravity can give the supply sufficient pressure, so a settlement’s water ‘tank’ needs to have the best ‘head’. Just as upland valleys present themselves for catchment reservoirs, high flat hills are the best locations for these service reservoirs, these water bunkers.
Thinking about this imperative got me on to the civic uses of hilltops generally. Across the road I found a cluster of notices directing me to the layered role and civic uses of the surrounding lay-by area. An island of human habitation. This place is variously a picnic zone, a scenic viewpoint, a car boot sale field, fly tipping blackspot, a dog walkers field and a recently added ‘woodland burial’ area. All of these uses (and their attendant signage) compete here for attention and dominance. Inside the burial field I encountered clear signs of tensions between the burial authority and the dog walkers. Freshly installed barbed wire fencing to the perimeter of the burial field suggested tensions too with the neighbouring farmer. There were many instances of ‘well beaten paths’ abruptly truncated by these fresh, bitter (and sharp) interventions. South Devon’s rich red earth screams out such pathways particularly loudly.
The name of this hilltop is ‘Gallows Gate’. A civic plaque in the picnic area proudly commemorates the places at which the boundaries of four boroughs formerly met, prior to the formation Torquay Borough Council in 1892. The plaque snootily pours scorn on the local folklore that has it that the hilltop is named after an unfortunate sheep rustler who became entangled whilst carrying his stolen sheep over a local gate and lay there hung by his own greed. Instead the sober civic story is that of the site as the historic location of the local ‘hundred’ (ancient council and judicial forum).
The plaque does acknowledge though that gallows were often to be found at the boundary of civic territories, adjacent to well travelled road or trackways and up high – all so that the fateful warning message of the condemned could signal widely the virtue of conformity to the law, and to the locality’s stomach for law enforcement (see Nixon 2012 for a fascinating account of the hill in this context).
Meanwhile, South Devon’s hilltops also presented opportunities for message transmission networks – thus nearby ‘Beacon Hill’, part of an Elizabethan fire based signalling network (and now site of the local TV and police transmitter aerials). Elsewhere in South Devon ‘Telegraph Hill’ speaks to another iteration of hill-signalling – the Admiralty’s Napoleonic semaphone telegraph, based on a system of large moveable wooden panels capable, similar to old railway signals.
This mundane hilltop has a quiet, but key infrastructural role in the water supply – life giving – cycle. And it, and hills like it, have been co-opted into abstract civic processes of war and peacetime communication, governance and punishment, commerce and leisure.
So, where was Michel de Certeau that day then?
Michel de Certeau died in 1986, so he was only with me in spirit on my walk to Gallows Gate. In his book, The Practice of Everday Life (1984) De Certeau writes of the role of ‘ghosts of the city’ – the power of physical and cultural fragments of the past to irrupt into everyday life and its places. But these ghosts are not confined to the city, indeed – as Dixon ably reminds us – such hilltops were places of execution and burial precisely so that the ghosts could be confined beyond the town (and its pavements).
De Certeau’s book (in the words of the book’s sales blurb):
“Considers the uses to which social representation and modes of social behaviour are put by individuals and groups, and describes the tactics available to the ordinary person for reclaiming autonomy from the all pervasive forces of commerce, politics and culture [and] understanding the public meaning of ingeniously defended private meanings”
Whilst de Certeau and I may differ around the edges as the relative scope for the creation and defence of ‘private meanings’ I will park those issues for today. What I wish to draw upon are de Certeau’s optimism about the individual’s ability to enrich life and places via an active approach to the creation of sense and purpose. A key distinction drawn in his book is between the ‘strategic’ approach of systems and their planners in their attempts to order and direct life and place (e.g. making, running and defending reservoirs, roads and burial grounds) versus the subverting, adaptive and lived ‘tactical’ performance of life and place by individuals.
Thus, this hilltop and its infrastructural features – whilst mundane in appearance to conventional aesthetics – can be actively imbued with rich meaning by a variety of individuals and groups through their chosen engagements with, and signification of things at it. Thus a web search tells me of trig point hunters and their collaborative desires to get into the reservoir compound and of the local historian keen to recall the grizzly layers of history of this place. Meanwhile my own visit reveals walking there as memorial enacted alongside dog walkers tracing their individual circuits around the burial field, the short-cut takers and their trails etched into red earth now frustrated by the freshly erected fencing. All of these are tactical engagements with this place.
Indeed, my journey back from Gallows Gate was tactical in this final sense. Having eventually found a way over the fencing I set myself a challenge of finding my way home in as much of a straight line as I could devise from my childhood knowledge of the fields, pathways, lanes and settlements comprising the outskirts of this town. This modest dérive required me to walk perpendicular to the prevailing east-west valleys and their roads and pavements running towards the bay, and the centre of the town. This required active memory work (to recognise and remember the places I walked through) and spatial planning (to join those places together as a route).
These tasks alerted me to something else that de Certeau (and I) have written about: the ‘erotics of knowledge’. The simple joy of mastering a thing, situation or a task through knowledge. As I cast my mind ahead yomping through these half-remembered fields and lanes I experienced momentary waves of satisfaction (and sometimes relief) that I had found a way through to the next stage of my journey home. Any wayfinder can recall this sensation. It’s the feeling of a plan coming together, of a task achieved, of a life presently and actively lived through knowledge and its pragmatic deployment.
Dedicated in loving memory of my grandmother,
Mollie Germain (1918 – 2012).
A Torquay resident all her life, the Twentieth Century delivered the
best and the worst of the world directly to her door.
De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Rendall, University of California Press, London.
Dixon, K. (2012) ‘Torquay’s Other History: Gallows Gate: Death in the Landscape’, blog essay on talktorbay.com, available at: http://talktorbay.com/torquays-other-history-gallows-gate-death-in-the-landscape
Trig Pointing UK (n.d.) at http://www.trigpointinguk.com/trigs/trig-details.php?t=3296