Everything in its place – an affective trip to EICA, Ratho
July 6, 2012 2 Comments
I’ve been in Edinburgh all week at the Royal Geographical Society conference. It’s been great and I’ve been soaking up the theoretical stuff in particular. There were lots of post-phenomenology sessions and the following takes that for a walk. A real walk, an affective turn around the corner – so to speak.
A more detatched report of my site visit will follow in another forum in due course. But for today, here’s the embodied journey. The travel through the wet, on stone and cinder path to a rather unusual place: Edinburgh International Climbing Arena at Ratho, a few miles south west of Edinburgh.
Planning to go there
I’ve never been before, and am not known as a frequenter of climbing walls. I went to study the place management aspect – that blend of ownership, arrangement and management of experience that makes a ‘venue’. And in particular I wanted to go there because this place is both inside and outside. I’m studying the afteruse of quarries. This place used to be a quarry. People climb in quarries. This place created indoor climbing walls within the surrounding ‘outdoor’ quarry space. Climbers do their thing on both surfaces, but with different contexts of ownership, arrangement and management of experience. This place is liminal in that it is both indoors and outdoors, a constructed venue and a ‘found’ (i.e. improvised) leisure space.
But I’m not actually going to write here about the climbing areas. Instead I want to consider affectively my physical ‘approach’ to this place – my journey to it, and initial sense-making of it as I stood waiting to go in.
Getting there wasn’t straight forward. I’d been able to walk everywhere during the conference. But getting to the EICA was beyond walking distance. So, I had to work out how to get there using public transport. Going by taxi would be a £50 round trip so that was out. The EICA website said rather cryptically:
“While there is no direct bus route to the Climbing Arena the Lothian Buses X12 stops in the town of Ratho which is just along the canal towpath to our centre”
How long is ‘just along’? Further instructions provided for those who venture on the X12 (actually the 12 because – as I discovered – the X12 only runs in the morning and evening rush hours) told me that “just along” comprised a towpath walk of “around 15 minutes”.
Old fashioned street walking and map and timetable work had found me the excursion plan and its general departure point, amidst the chaos of the Edinburgh tram system works. The torrential rain of recent weeks had also found me. Pavements rapidly pooling and memories of last week’s severance of both the East and West coast mainlines for two days due to landslides from waterlogged hills. How should I read this rain? At what level of wet data should I abort my end-of conference trip into the Edinburgh hinterland and head straight for home to avoid getting stranded here? I couldn’t work it out. The rain was coming and going. I was running short on time as I searched for the bus-stop. I would leave it to fate. If I didn’t find the stop in time, I’d take that as my cue to give up. I got there a minute late. Reconciled myself to fate, but then suddenly the bus appeared. Hmm. Okay, I’d better go then.
Jumping aboard I hit that familiar ‘fish out of water’ feeling that you get when you travel on a bus. The travel logic of trains is nationalised. You get the same procedures and expectations where ever you ride the system. But bus logics are so much more parochial. You feel disempowered amidst a sea of regular users, all glaring at you as you ask a question that only you don’t already know the answer to. The driver mumbles a reply and stares awkwardly at me announcing that Lothian Buses don’t give change.
I go and sit down, humping my two wet backpacks into a corner, trying to make them invisible within the finite space of this bus. I look out the window, but it has all misted up. I wonder whether I’ve made the right decision in committing myself to four more hours in Scotland (a northern land now positioned in my mind as a border about to close, an island about to separate from England, and my chance of getting home).
Tough. I’m committed now. I sit there in my rain-wet and sweaty clothes. I watch the roundabouts. I see the gradual thinning of the city as we reach the outskirts. I habituate to the lurch and throb of the bus. Ribbon-development fades, a shopping complex, iceberg-like looms up in the middle of nowhereland. Then a cluster of citadel-like bank buildings, then the airport, the motorway and then the humpback canal bridge that tells me to get ready to press the ‘request stop’ button and rid myself of the anxiety haunting my journey thus-far that “I won’t know when to get off”, that I will end up somewhere else, stranded in a place that is of no use to me and will render my journey totally pointless, rather than a calculated gamble framed around squeezing in a site visit because I’m in the area.
I have followed the last few country miles via GPS on my phone. It hasn’t shown my journey entirely faithfully. According to Google Maps’ little blue pointer some part of me had an out of body digression in a field a few miles away for a few moments whilst the bus travelled across the motorway. I noticed nothing. Me and the bus were where we had always been. I hope that the part of me that went off with the blue arrow for that brief liaison in that field had a fun time.
But me, the bus, the bridge and blue arrow had now converged and I got off. Ratho looked more like a small village (quite quaint) than a town. As instructed by the EICA website’s instructions for pedestrians I found my way back over, and then under, the bridge and onto the canal towpath. The instructions said ‘head West’ and I set off. But what felt instinctively like West was actually East, so after testing my position in real space by watching my blue arrow as I tried out the options, I oriented myself to local roofs (viewed in bird’s eye abutting the canal) and I set off in the right direction.
The path was pleasant. I exchanged vague nods and waves with dredger barge helmsmen, and noted the near to overtopping water levels in the canal. I plodded on. And on. Apart from these Constable like water workers and their strange vessels this pathland was empty.
I was instructed to “arrive at EICA via staircase on the right of the path”, but had no idea what it would look like or when it would appear. The towpath felt like a static image, a water channel and tarmac line stretching into the distance, wrapped in verdant foliage. A green tunnel drawing me forth. I started to marvel at how trusting we are most of the time about texts that tell us how to reach somewhere or how to do something. We rarely stop to wonder, distrustfully, “What if they are trying to trick me, to tell me the opposite of what I need to know, of leading me into danger?”
As I pondered these fanciful thoughts (without believing for a moment that anyone might actually go to the trouble of setting up a website in order to entice me to a canal towpath for nefarious ends) I started filming on my phone, to try and capture the feeling of the endlessness of this walk into the unknown (or perhaps unknown-lite captures it better). With my head still full of post-phenomenology and affect theory I was trying to capture the sounds and sight of ‘trudge’. The scrape of my walking boots on the path, the brush of my waterproofs, the birds and raindrops.
But suddenly the staircase was upon me (or I was upon it – depending which way you want to interpret human-staircase relations). The sudden appearance of that ‘entrance’ took me by surprise. I’d set in for a ‘long trek’. But I’d already arrived. And as it sunk in that I’d ‘arrived’ I shed lots of the ‘walking into the unknown’ anxieties. I’d reached my target. I’d proved my navigational competence. This pathway now seemed an obvious and modest A to B connection. The mystery fell away (and on the return journey it felt really quick and functional, I was in a known world, headed for ‘my’ bus stop, ‘my’ bus and fulfilment of ‘my’ successful day trip).
I walked up the steps (wooded, chunky, tasteful). I saw the welcome sign (orange, welcoming and energetic). I walked towards the building, but then snook around the side to take a peek first. The side area presented a gantry, almost Escher like in its multi-levels. The architecture there portrayed both a conquest of and reverence towards ‘the vertical’ and its rock faces. I stood on a mid-level gantry and looked over into the ‘natural’ quarry face area. Later I would go inside the centre building and see the artificial climbing walls. As I looked across at the natural quarry faces (still climbed by locals but not formally part of the EICA) I took in the sights and sounds of this former quarry. The birds, the drip of rain but also the occasional thud sound of (I presume) human bodies falling either from low climb holds on the walls inside or from throws onto judo mats. Either way, they sounded like humans in controlled falls, a strange organic rhythmic percussion carried through a wall into the empty vista of metal gantry, quarried stone and the attendant cloak of moisture.
Walking back towards the entrance of the centre I caught a feint fragment of quarrying sound. Mechanical clanging, engine revving and heavy matter tumbling from a hopper. Ghost like, this felt like a sound bleed from an earlier era of this place (but was more likely a waft of operational sound from Tarmac’s active quarry nearby).
At my feet lay a path of crushed stone, rimmed by large boulders. An artful (and obvious) echo of the site’s former life. But it was a small piece of rubber matting (possibly a portion of conveyor track) sticking up out of the path that gave the most seemingly authentic echo of the site’s former life. A quarry is about stone, before, during and after its operational phase. But during it other matter comes also onboard temporarily, the crushers, hoppers, paper, plastic, helmets, rubber tyres, diesel fumes. It was fitting to get an inadvertent sense of that too amidst the ‘obvious’ stone.
Heading into the reception area to meet my guide, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a crowd of ‘mums with toddlers’. It seems this place has a thriving play area, and has become a weekday haunt for the bored ‘toddler and parent’ set, part of a circuit perhaps of various commodious places to meet up, those other places having nothing to do with rock climbing. I thus felt this place, through that local abundance of this fraction of its clientele, at that time and place, to be generic in the sense that its rock-ness seemed at best incidental to their uses of it.
I will end this account with me standing there, at the reception desk awaiting the start of my tour. Behind me lies an arrangement of leather sofas positioned in front of rock hewn walls, a kind of Dr No meets the Flintstones aesthetic. And by those walls stand a group of small children. One reaches up to start a climb onto a promontory. The mother standing in line in front of me turns and shouts out to him firmly, “No climbing on that – I’m warning you!” and on closer inspection I find, sitting there atop that outcrop, signs:
“Sorry, these rocks aren’t for climbing”.
I’m very grateful to EICA for the guided tour. The building is wonderful and sits very well within its environment – and is well worth a visit. As mentioned above, an account of my visit inside will appear in due course elsewhere as a more formal output of my ongoing study of the afterlives of abandoned quarries and their owners and users perceptions of these places.
[NB: I’ve decided not to upload the video or the pics I took. For once, I’d like to leave the words to evoke the images.]