Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at:

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also:


Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.


Get in the car

“If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Augé 1995: 77-8)

For Marc Augé roads are empty transit spaces, voids between places of departure and arrival. They are not places themselves, because they are not energised by attention, affiliation, community or continuity. Upon the non-place of the highway we are each locked into the confines of our own dulled, atomised, instrumentalist present.

Following my earlier blog here, this essay continues my problematizing of Augé’s ‘non-places’. It does so by pondering a one mile hillside portion of trunk road and finds that far from being non-place, this dual carriage-way can be shown to be deeply relational, very much wrapped up with histories and a very fertile ground for attachment and the formation and sustaining of identity and meaning.

Gravity and memory on the A380

We’re at the base of Telegraph Hill, a steep ascent for the A380 as it speeds out of the Exeter basin, and onwards towards the South Devon coast. The A380 starts as a spur, splitting off from the Plymouth-bound A38, at the base of this hill, just past the hamlet of Kennford, and its tired hostelries straining to catch the attention of motorists as they speed past.

I’ve travelled this road many, many times in my 48 years. It feels like it is etched into my very existence. Growing up in Devon, my family existed in two separate camps, which I was shuttled between. This road’s ascent to the summit of Telegraph Hill was the transition between two zones of experience, the topography acting as cues for my mental adjustment to suit the mores of the camp that I was journeying towards. That transition was mapped out by the course of this road, and specifically its ascent up this long upward climb.

Habitually you accelerate into a hill, because you know that it will drain your power as you climb. Embodied experience conditions precisely how and when I start to accelerate into this hill, and that point in the road takes on ironic significance on this summer 2015 iteration of my familiar journey, for at the point of habitual acceleration (or thereabouts) we ride over the extinguished remains of a Royal Observer Corps nuclear fallout observation monitoring post. This spring was dominated for me by hunting out these places, so it was inevitable that I would look to find them on my route towards my childhood home. This adds a new significance to my re-experience of this part of the A380, and in turn has triggered the ruminations that have led to this piece of writing.

The former Post’s location is somewhere beneath my car as I speed along the tarmac, the bunkerologists having told me that Exminster ROC Post (opened 1964, closed 1968) is:

“DEMOLISHED. No trace of anything. The site was probably lost during realignment of the junction to the east in the 1970s.” (Subbrit 2001)

I travelled this road regularly in the late 1970s, prior to this realignment. I try to think back to that time. But I can’t remember individual trips, the memory of the lumbering ascent upon rickety buses is an aggregate memory, a generalised montage. And in scouring my mind’s eye I see nothing of the extant, but already abandoned ROC post somewhere nearby. But I do recall the image of standing on the verge, by the back of a bus, sometime in the late 1970s, our ascent temporarily defeated by the demands of the hill climb. But all I can picture is the rear end of the coach, and a vague sprawl of trees and a sense of evening light fading. That’s it. Whilst I must have been close to that Post, but I never saw it. And I never saw Smokey Joe either.

Smokey Joe was a famous tramp who lived in a layby half way up the hill for many years, feeding off the land and the donations of passersby, until his death in 1976. The layby was testimony to the mechanical trials of this ascent, a place for lorry drivers to pull over and cool their overheated engines. Smokey Joe had chosen his pitch wisely, with an eye on gravity and the limitations of contemporary auto-engineering.

Even after 40 years the approach to that pull-in still compels me to glance into the shaded grove beyond the layby, a habituated action born of efforts as a young child to spot Smokey Joe’s encampment.

But that remembrance, and its accompanying reflex glance, is not – it seems – something unique to my experience of this hill, for South Devon internet forums testify to many whose childhood experience of this ascent was conditioned by the spectacle of this roadside dweller. And the character of these recollections, amidst some wistful nostalgia, is a remarkably consistent compound of memories that fuse the somatic strain of the hill climb with the hill-dwelling of Smokey Joe. This seems a specific manifestation of what Tim Edensor finds emergent in the shared experiences of regular travellers along familiar routes:

“we might conjecture that constellations of collective experience constitute something akin to a structure of feeling shared by motorway drivers in general and commuters along particular routes more specifically” (2003: 155)

This tramp, personifies the effort of the climb, thereby stabilising both a memory of this man, and a shared experience of both a time and place: the hill climb in the 1970s. Perhaps this gravity-connection is something that has emerged with the benefit of hindsight, otherwise Joe would have been called Layby Joe, or even the Crawler Lane Man, but the name that stuck emerged from an even more immediate material feature of his existence, for those who met him or the other two tramps inhabiting the Haldon Hills in the 1970s, testified to their amenability, and also to their odour. Smokey Joe was so-named because he and his wood fire, and its pervasive smoke, had become synonymous. And it was the plume of smoke from his fire that would be the looked-for sign of his presence as the layby came into view.

And then across on the North-bound, carriageway, another gravity-memory springs to mind, that of my father switching off the engine as he freewheeled downhill, inspired by the fuel crisis of 1974 and its aftermath, a global geopolitical reality expressed upon the conveniently steep incline of a South Devon hillside.

I was always relieved when he turned the engine back on, usually around the point at which we passed the sand-pit escape lane, kindly provided in the layby for the assistance of any motorist who discovered his brakes had overheated and failed after excessive use on the long descent.

At one point in a journey my father had asked me what I was thinking. I was pondering the virtual nature of the transfer of ransom payment monies as part of the US embassy hostage situation, following the Iranian Revolution. That family image now sits in my head (and maybe his), very much emplaced upon a random stretch of dual carriageway, the scene at which a distant geopolitical situation was suddenly uttered into our shared discursive world, as our car sped towards Exeter.

Augé’s critics point to the irrepressible creation of a sense of place by individuals. As Edensor shows, driving releases lines of flight both in the sense of velocities of travel, but also chains of association that link distant, seemingly unconnected themes, times and places. In contrast to Augé’s figuring highways as barren, linear ‘non-places’, Edensor revalorises them, highlighting their “complex, associational and folded geography” (2003: 156).

Furthermore, and stepping beyond a broadly psychogeographic salvation of autospaces based upon personal reverie and free-association, Peter Merriman (2004) has shown roads are sustained communal projects – they call together a cast of thousands, those who design, build, and maintain them plus those whose lives and journeys intersect with them. The shared experience of them as places is a result of the ideas and matter brought to those spaces in co-ordinated and sustained campaigns of civil engineering.

Roads are socio-material accomplishments, and as such they exist with, through and beyond us, regardless of our reflex to loath or rhapsodise upon them. Rosemary Shirley (2015) touches on this notion of roads-as-places-whether-we-like-it-or-not dimension, when she writes that roads are unequivocally part of the contemporary countryside. They are not alien encroachments from elsewhere – urban tendrils invading the picturesque purity of arcadia. Shirley persuasively argues instead that they are a feature of rural modernity, challenging our tendency to equate modernity with the metropolis. Roads comprise a core feature of both our environment and our modernity. We are creatures of roads.

So, how might we investigate this residual roadness, to take matters beyond cultural geographers’ saving roads from their non-place fate by showing us how we dwell within autoscapes, animating them as meaningful places by our presence and thoughts?

Excavating the layered remains

Here I want to consider what additional insight we might attain from archaeology – by engaging with the extant roadway as situated material culture. Importantly, this requires us to adopt a broad view of archaeology, and specifically to think about how we could investigate things-in-use, for the road is very much in use, and is very much of our time.

Rodney Harrison & John Schofield (2010) map out possible routes for engagement with the interpretation of modern roads within their prescription for an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ – arguing that an attentiveness to the time-depth and materiality of roads and their support infrastructure can further help to build a rounded picture of the phenomenon of contemporary auto-mobilities, and perhaps thereby to further assert the place-ness of autoscapes.

An archaeological analysis of my stretch of the A380 would show how this road has always been in a state of change. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to a Roman road occupying the current course through the Haldon Hills. This continuity of route is attested by one of the first UK road maps, John Ogilby’s Britannia of 1675, and continues into the era of 18th century turnpike trusts and thereafter local authority stewardship. And yet that continuity is deceptive, for the precise route up Telegraph Hill has fluctuated in width, position and composition. To excavate these roads would be to work down through layers of different iterations of this highway, innumerable flexes and adjustments, repairs and reconstitutions. A road never stops being made.

Perhaps an archaeological eye would zero in on what the physical composition and arrangement of this road section tells us about how roads fit into our socio-technical systems. The escape lane would tell us of the limitations of our braking systems, the reorientation of road junctions at the summit of the hill would hint at our corrective attempts to address an accident blackspot, and to facilitate both safer and more fluid trafficking upon the A380 and its side roads. And looking to the surroundings, the highway facing 1960s chalet type buildings verging the highway at Kennford and the abandoned 1960s motel at the summit of Telegraph Hill would tell us of an optimistic era in which the challenge of the hill climb warranted rest or refreshment before or after the ascent, and the vacancy of this ruined plot would tell us of the marginal profitability of this autospace oasis in the early twenty first century. The crawler lane and Smokey Joe’s layby would also testify to the mechanical limitations of twentieth century motor vehicles. And analysis of changes to the road configurations would tell us material-tales of the cult of acceleration, the progressive excising of contour hugging bends to create a straighter road path, of the separation of northern and southern carriageways and of road widening to dual carriage. Meanwhile analysis of roadside litter, evolutions in lighting and ‘cat’s eye’ design, changes to crash barrier provisioning and the altered chemical composition of road marking pigments would all tell their own story (in the latter case, revealing our contemporary concerns with toxic substances in the disappearance of lead chromate pigment from the pigment of yellow road markings over the last decade).

But, much of this would require physical access to the highway, and would be ruled impracticable on cost, safety and disruption to the all-important flow. So what could archaeology add?

The drive by autoarchaeologist

“we can all be archaeologists of the contemporary past, because it is a critical inquiry into what it means to be ourselves” (2010: 12)

So write Harrison and Schofield in After Modernity, their contemplative manifesto for an archaeology concerned with making sense of the lived past – the past that exists within our present, because it has been lived by us. It is an archaeology that does not set out to encounter some remote Other, through its material remains, but rather the application of archaeology’s techniques (and its sensitivity to place’s flux through time) towards making sense of our own times, and our own sense of being.

Harrison & Schofield’s embrace of the subjectivity that lies at the heart of an attempt by us to study ourselves is refreshing, and positions their prescription for archaeology much closer to a phenomenological sensibility than we might expect of archaeologists, given that discipline’s efforts to align to scientific rigour and truth-seeking disposition built up during the twentieth century. Their prescription opens the prospect that all of us are capable of this critical enquiry (thus ‘autoarchaeology’), because the methodology is essentially a contemplative one:

“Thinking through and analysing the places we experience are normal processes that people go through often as a matter of course. And for us this seems to be the essence also of an archaeological approach. No digging required. Just observe, engage and think.” (70)

Indeed, Harrison & Schofield namecheck both Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in their avowal of the importance of studying our everyday existence – for:

“if we overlook the everyday, we overlook what it means to be us and we run the risk of remembering only the noteworthy, or the unusual” (11).

So, if we are being urged to co-opt archaeological methods to notice, and thereby remember the normal, the unremarkable, the prosaic – are we witnessing the point at which the archaeology of the contemporary past merges into something psychogeographic? I’m particularly thinking of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’ here, and his invocation to foreground everything, to background nothing. To scavenge in order to multiply, rather than to reduce our experience and its world to certain marked, salient points.

This may be pushing Harrison & Schofield’s argument too far – but it certainly opens up further bridgework between the academics and the lay meaning-makers roaming out there, enchanting and energising the supposedly prosaic phenomenon of the contemporary world like the A380 at Telegraph Hill, giving it a longer-than-normal stare, and glimpsing something else to remember, something else to take into the future as part of their own lived past. And there are plenty of people already out there doing precisely this, whether reminiscing about crawler lanes and old tramps in laybys or ‘researching’ the evolution of local road systems. In preparing this essay I’ve drawn upon the products of such labours, I’ve explored the A380 through the online resources assembled by a number of enthusiast groups – the Chudleigh History Group, the Devon Milestone Society, Torquay United Fans Forum, the ‘This is Exeter’ web-forum, Facebook, Wikipedia (on escape lanes, tarmacadam, the history of speed limits and Telegraph Hill), the BBC Domesday Project, Subterranea Britannica, CBRD (Chris’ British Road Directory) and the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts.

We are indeed all contemporary archaeologists.


Augé, M. (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Verso: London.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘M6 – Junction 19-16, Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’, Space & Culture, 6(2): 151-168.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J. (2010) After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, OUP: Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places – Marc Augé, Non-places and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5): 145-167

Shirley, R. (2015) Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Ashgate: Farnham

Subbrit (Subterranea Britannica) (2001) Royal Observer Corps – An on-line survey of the UK’s ROC and UKWMO Monitoring Posts at:

Links for Smokey Joe reminiscences:

Image source: – Junction_of_A380_and_A38,_Haldon_Hill_-_Geograph_-_1537146

How the city appears: towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This is a forward-looking plug for Walking Inside Out a compendium of essays on contemporary British psychogeography to be edited by Tina Richardson (@concretepost) as part of  Rowman and Littlefield International’s book series on Place, Memory and Affect. The book is due to be published in Autumn 2015.

There’s an overview of this project at Tina’s Particulations blog:

As Tina writes there:

“The book will open with a history of British psychogeography, thus situating the current swell within its chronological context. It will introduce the terms that are often used within the field and the key thinkers within the urban walking lineage. Discussing the current state of British psychogeography, the introduction will explore the historical problems within the field, dealing with some of the contemporary detractors of the subject and will introduce the various forms of output that explorations of the city take, whether they be in film form, such as Patrick Keiller’s political and architectural films about London, or the creative literary texts of Iain Sinclair.

Contributions will be from academics and researchers specialising in the field, and from those working in the area of urban walking who are not based in academia, ranging from literary writers to artists. Because of this approach the selection of essays offer a breadth and richness that can only exist when different perspectives come together under one volume. The voices expressed will highlight and explore the setting and climate as it is for psychogeography in the UK in the 21st Century. They will provide current examples of contemporary psychogeographical practices and how they are used, show how a critical form of walking can highlight easily overlooked urban phenomenon, and examine the impact that everyday life in the city has on the individual. Case studies will also be included that offer a British perspective of international spaces, from the postmodern space of Los Angeles to the post-communist city in Europe, thus offering an international direction to the volume, too. This volume also attempts to deemphasise the prevalence of London-centric psychogeographical texts, which seem to be the ones that predominate, by offering essays on cities like Manchester and Leeds, and geographical areas like Tyneside and Powys. The style of the essays will range from accounts of walks from urban walkers themselves, to theoretical texts that help to analyse the practice itself and ground it methodologically. This book proposes to be representative of psychogeography as it is in Britain today and aims to become the first dedicated academic volume on the subject: accessible to scholars, students and urban walkers alike.”

It’s great that the project brings together a wide spectrum of ‘urban walkers’, some academic, some not. Inevitably, Tina has had to be selective and there are many others who could have been featured if space had permitted – but I think the cross section that Tina has assembled will produce a very good account of the (many) ways and purposes towards which broadly psychogeographical sensibilities are being applied in both urban studies, the creative arts and good old mind-engaged curious walking.

I’m one of the contributors who has made it through to the final selection. I will now have to pull my finger out and explain what I see as the link between psychogeography and legal geography. I may even have a go at saying this out loud as my contribution to the August 2014 RGS session on Legal Geography.

But for now, here’s my abstract from Walking Inside Out. My essay will be within a section Tina’s headed ‘How the City Appears’. In my research work I’m fascinated by how different disciplines / practices foreground different aspects of the material environment that they are in. Law is one of those filters and there’s fun to be had (really, there is) in playing with the two senses of ‘law’ – first as lawyers use it and second as used by Guy Debord in framing his vision of psychogeography back in 1955:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” 

Another theme I want to blend in is Ben Highmore’s notion of a creative forensics of everyday living, captured splendidly in the following quote:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (2002: 56)

I’ve touched on this forensic angle in an earlier blog post:

Highmore also speaks of Sherlock Holmes’ gift of being able to take everyday objects and to discover the stories of those associated with them. Holmes floods meaning into the seemingly insignificance of matter surrounding him – by being attentive to the banal, the elementary.

So, my contribution to Walking Inside Out will be an attempt to excavate something elementary from looking, standing, walking, researching and thinking about a nondescript section of pavement. So, finally – for now – here’s my abstract for the project:

Towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This title has been haunting me for a number of years. It started out as a private joke, but then increasingly I came to take it seriously as a way of explaining how I see contemporary psychogeographical sensibilities as helpful to my attempts to investigate law’s contribution towards the ordering of daily encounters with mundane physical aspects of the urban realm.  Not many methods of legal or social science scholarship give you a way of meaningfully investigating the prosaic. But Ben Highmore, drawing on the work of theorists like Georg Simmel, Michel De Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, has helpfully sketched out ways in which surrealism and other essential psychogeographical strategies give us tools to excavate the interplay of symbols, affects and materialities that make up the built environment and our daily experience of it. In my chapter I will set out a psychogeographically informed account of the multiple lives of a small spot of pavement, in order to explicate this rich realm, and its various facets and tensions. In doing so I will also reflect on the novelty of this approach, and the survival strategies that I have evolved in order to endeavour to justify this preoccupation and set of methodological strategies within the academic disciplines to which I am affiliated.”


Debord, G. (1955) “Introduction to a critique of urban geography” Les Levres Nues, 6

Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Routledge: London

Image credit:, a blog post on a fan site for BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ series in which very thorough attempts are made to deduce from the arrangement of the street scene whether Sherlock [who’s not a real person anyway] did or did not fall from a tall building onto the pavement beneath

From the pavement at Pimlico: metropolitan streets and what lies beneath



“They are the real Dasein.

Streets, buildings, airports, boats, tents, fireplaces, quartz quarries…

they are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all within reach.”

Olsen (2010)

So, I’m preparing for a trip to Pimlico; to speak at a summit about public safety in abandoned quarries and a colleague quips, “that’s ironic, ‘cos there are no quarries in London”. He has a point, but it sets a deeper thought running.

Last time I went to Pimlico, I was there to visit Tate Britain. The treasures inside were all very well, but I was equally transfixed by the vast white elevation of building’s exterior – that Portland stone and its shrapnel marks, a testimony to a nearby instance of the Blitz: the smoothness of that surface ruptured by pock marks, revealing the granularity of the exposed quartz grains within, glistening in the low summer sun that day.

Perhaps it’s trite to say that a city is made of stuff – yet, as Bjornar Olsen reminds us so evocatively in his book In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects (2010):

“societies and cultures…are put together … [with] real building materials – …concrete and steel, rebar and pillars [are crucially] involved in their construction…we should pay far more attention to the material components that constitute the very condition of possibility for those features we associate with social order, structural durability, and power.”

So, as distraction from packing for my trip – and as a modest contribution towards Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we must “search for the missing masses” and challenge the “oblivion of things” (Olsen) in social theory and research informed by it, I started to sew together some thoughts about the fate of stone within Pimlico, and specifically its pavements.

As Raphael Samuels shows, urban growth in the nineteenth century sucked ever greater quantities of quarried stone into the burgeoning towns and cities. That material speaks to us today in the form of statement buildings (in London that could be the grandeur of ‘mercantile’ and/or ‘imperial’ hew). As a stunning illustration of the metropolitan appetite for stone, and also of the wide geographical ‘net’ thrown by that demand, Samuels exhibits the “promiscuous variety of stone” comprising the frontage of the new (in 1878) Oxford Street premises of silk mercers Marshall and Snelgrove:

“The facade…is carried out in yellow malms and Corsham Down stone [Wiltshire], all the cornices, string-courses, and weatherings being Portland Stone [Dorset]. The lower portion is divided into bays of pilasters of Portland stone, below which are Sharp [Westmorland] granite pillars on grey Aberdeen moulded bases, the Shap and Portland being finished at their bases with ornamental bronze bands.” (both 1977: 14)

But whilst building stone may – by these component names (Portland; Corsham; Aberdeen Granite) – be vaguely  familiar to us, they give a misleading impression. For the bulk of stone summoned into city was actually consumed in its highways and pavements as sub-base, setts, kerbs and gutters.

As a case study in the fate of its road stone, Samuels shows how Aberdeenshire’s first paving contract with the City of London was made in 1766 and by the 1830s London was already a major outlet for the district’s quarries. Yet of the 36,352 tons of stone sent down to London in 1831 only 143 tons was for use as building stone: 3,137 tons were for pavements and kerbs, and 33,072 tons for ‘carriage way’, these stones (setts) being supplied in six size grades.

Key London thoroughfares were prominently laid with Aberdeen setts in the 1840s, including London Bridge, Cheapside and Moorgate, before the harder Mountsorrel stone (from Leicestershire) first trialled at Euston in 1843 came progressively to dominate as the carriage way road stone of choice for the increasingly trafficked inner city (before, in time, Mountsorrel was itself eclipsed (or at least overlain) by the less elegant but more repairable tarmacadam method, and its voracious and indiscriminate appetite for crushed stone for its oil- meets-rock matrix).

And so the city grew and grew. It also adapted. The roads and pavements accommodating to sewer laying, distribution networks for electricity, gas, telecoms, the arrival of tram tracks, the removal of tram tracks, the expansion of networks, the renewal of networks, fibre optics and  broadband, traffic control technology. With each iteration the roads and pavements were cut into and patched up  – space ebbing and flowing, made in the conduits beneath: a proliferation of colours, angles, agencies and layers of churned and re-compacted subsoil, stone, metal, power, water, waste: the life blood and bile of the city.

Picture throbbing capillaries pulsing liquid, heat and information instant by instant beneath the busy street and its Aberdeen granite jigsaw.

Then – on 25 April 2013 – at the corner of Pimlico Road, outside an antiques shop, brooding and miscontent beneath the pavement – a power cable explodes, a flash forcing up pavers and ungirded power into the day: unchained energy violently seeking out earth through sky, and escaping from the thrall of 1,867 denied users.


This strange incident then proliferates (a meme spreading through the networks, coursing through the city’s ventricles), a multitude of iterations of this video and a new found anxious regard for the safety of pavements and all that normally silent stuff that lies beneath. And subsequent reports tell us that such eruptions are not as uncommon as we might expect: 8 in 2011, 29 in 2012 and 12 in the first 6 months of 2013 according to the Health & Safety Executive (LBC).

In this eruption – like Heidegger’s thumb-striking hammer – the normally ‘in place’ nature of pavement assemblages is destabilised, for [to return to the opening quote from Olsen and to invert it by way of closing]:

“… they [normally] are in place and they manifest themselves to us as familiar

…they [normally] appear where we expect them to be

…[they] are all [normally] within reach.

[But not always entirely

under our



BBC (2013) ‘Pimlico pavement explodes, narrowly missing passerby’ BBC News London

ITV (2013) ‘Pavement Power Explosion’

LBC (2013) ‘New Threat to Londoners: Exploding Pavements’, LBC 97.3FM.

Olsen, B. (2010) In Defense of Things – archaeology and the ontology of objects, Alta Mira Press: Plymouth.

Samuels, A, (1977) ‘Mineral Workers’ in Raphael Samuels  (ed.) Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, London: Routledge & Kogan Paul Ltd

Image sources:

Video of explosion – filmed by local resident Charlie Brook and uploaded to Youtube.

Hole in the pavement:

On Three Outcrops: Granite – trial and ordeal

“A rock, an event, a past, cannot write itself…and yet it does” (Schlunke, 2005)

I now close this outcrop trilogy with a multi-site rumination on the imperviousness of granite.



Granite always involved a journey inland, and a negotiation too. Growing up in a household without a car it was always a convoluted trek to Dartmoor to commune with its stout grey sentinels. It would entail finding a spare seat on the extended family’s convoy into those hills. But the relative difficultly of reaching these rocks added to their lure. To be there, amongst them was to be somewhere made meaningful through its relative unattainability; special through a (modest) trial and ordeal. Whilst barely 30 miles from my town, these bulbous grey mica flecked outcrops felt regional, rather than local. I hold cherished memories of actual visits, but the yearning to visit was always stronger than the specific memories of actually being there. In melancholic moments the image of being up amongst these windswept peaks was a strong one. A wished for recuperative:  something to blow the cobwebs away, to recharge the batteries, to fill a hole.

Granite sits and broods, squat and strong, its forms asking to be clambered upon, pored, investigated. But it doesn’t give much away. It leaves you to speculate. Unlike the perishing, unstable and ubiquitous rocks of Torquay, granite has a resolute firmness and mystery. And there is something sinister in granite’s sly Easter Island faces: a silent leeching of radon from its radioactive pores, that gas seeping into basements, slowly poisoning unventilated air and bringing 1,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in the granite zones across the UK (Laurance 2010). A slow, silent-but-deadly, rock fart.

Bluff Rock

“Bluff Rock sits. Bluff Rock towers. It is the silent main character in this crime cum ghost story – it is always there, it always remains.”

Bluff Rock

Kristina Schlunke’s Bluff Rock (2005) is an account of her attempt to investigate an 1844 massacre of aborigines atop a local granite outcrop close to her Australian outback childhood home.  Schlunke ‘s research ranges across contemporary accounts, wider cultural context and the material conditions of the event-space. The rock itself is offered up as a mute witness to whatever happened there. For Schlunke preoccupations of the present inevitably seek to project onto any attempt to interpret the past. She sees the urge to order and make sense via selection and narrative as something to be – if not resisted – then at least laid bare. In that sense her investigation becomes resolutely autobiographical and deconstructive. The outcrop itself is presented as resistant to this ordering, resistant to the writing (or revealing) of the ‘truth’ of the event. In the swirl of interpretations, Schlunke clambers to the top of Bluff Rock and finds there no plateau, no clearly defined edge from which the cornered aborigines could have been ‘thrown’ (as in the testimony of the perpetrators). Schlunke is not seeking to deny the atrocities of colonialists and their actions against those already inhabiting the supposed Terra Nullis, but she finds threads that cannot be neatly assimilated into any of the circulating accounts. She concludes that the massacre probably did take place – once amongst many in this locality – but probably not at this landmark, that scenery having been added later, as though the event required geological ‘sexing-up’, bringing in a dramatic staging point, a crescendo for the endemic casual violence of such frontier encounters.

Bluff Rock passes no clue other than its own topography and density of thicket. It is impervious to rapid travel and interrogation alike. A material synonymous with memorials and headstones gives up little testimony of this past. Instead meaning comes from that projected onto this outcrop by its passersby:

“To drive past Bluff Rock is to see nothing but rock. To stop at the viewing place is to acquire a name and some history. To go to the Visitors’ Centre and ask for a leaflet is to be given a story of omnipotent white power.”

Cave Rock

Schlunke notes the instability of the very naming of Bluff Rock (and of the colonial urge-to-name as part of territorial conquest). An early – rain soaked – explorer came upon the outcrop in a wet July  and declared it ‘St Swithin’s Bluff’. That name didn’t stick, but – as for Schlunke – “This combination of rain and rock and the figure of a man’s body open to the elements and the effect of other men, creates a very nuanced image of that first ‘owner’”.

Cave Rock

Likewise Matthew & Michael Makley find something similar in Cave Rock (2010), their account of the disputed use of a Nevada lakeside granite mass, the remnant of a volcano that erupted there three million years ago. To the local native American Washoe tribes this outcrop is “De’ek wadapush” (Rock Standing Grey), to the white explorers who then sought to style a name for this landmark, it was variously “Rocky Point” then “Indian Rock” and then “Cave Rock”.

The Washoe detoured to avoid this place. It was a potent place, to be visited only by shamen and at which secret rituals of re-powering would be performed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But then in 1859 the white man’s gold rush saw a plank bridge-road skirt the edge of the mass. Then in 1931 engineers blasted a road tunnel straight through it (with a second tunnel added in 1957). The Washoe were not consulted.

Granite comes in many shapes and textures, but is often notable for its sheerness. As Schlunke puts it: “only straight, downward fissures and the simple immensity of granite”. Cave Rock was of a formation not well suited to traditional crack system based climbing, but the pioneering of bolt enabled sport climbing in the 1980s opened up the possibility of sheer rock faces to climbing. You don’t need cracks, seams and crevasses if you have runs of metal bolts fixed into a face.

In 1987 the first sport climbing route was pioneered at Cave Rock. Sports climbers bolted this vertical landscape and – in their view – improved the place by tidying up the litter and tunnel debris they found there, and paving the cave base. Ultimately 325 anchors marking the 47 distinct high-challenge routes written onto the face of Cave Rock by the scrutiny of the pioneering climbers who attentively read this vertical place and its route-potential, portraying this engagement with the rock in ecstatic, semi-spiritual terms, for example route pioneer Dan Osman:

“When I finished ‘Psycho Monkey’, I looked to the right and saw the line of ‘Phantom Lord’, which was harder [5.13b]. When I finished that, I looked to the right again and saw…the line of ‘Slayer’…I yelled to my belayer to lower me, and ran over to start working on it.” (quoted in Makley & Makley, 2010).

The climbers’ interest in Cave Rock coincided with emergence of a (slightly) greater attentiveness to Native American affairs in US Federal policy, sparking long debate amidst Cave Rock’s custodians, the US Forestry Service, about how the seemingly incompatible uses could be reconciled. The Washoe wanted all non Washoe use of Cave Rock to be banned. In retort the climbers developed a triple pronged argument, first that US constitutional law prohibited the Forestry Service from acting in a way that promoted the interests of a religion. Secondly, that the spiritual integrity of Cave Rock had already been erased by the road tunnels and thirdly, that Cave Rock now held a rich spiritual meaning for climbers too (hinting at an equivalence to that of the Washoe).  Meanwhile – to add to the messy reality and multiple meaning making in play at this site – Cave Rock had been designated as a Federal heritage site due to its historic transportation significance: the road tunnels!

Sadly, the dispute remained one largely polarised between the climbers and the Washoe, the vision of a march upon Cave Rock by an enraged mob of access defending road tunnel enthusiasts never materialised. Ultimately, after some extensive to-ing and fro-ing the Federal Appeal court decided that it was lawful for the US Forestry Service to ban climbing at Cave Rock without falling foul of the US constitution. The rock’s heritage value for the Washoe (and the general population of the area) could be acknowledged , and climbing upon this publically owned land could be prohibited as of deleterious character to the integrity of the rock itself.

Subsequently, the climbers bolts were removed, their holes plugged and the climbers flooring works taken away too. But Cave Rock remains publicly owned land, it has not been repatriated to the Washoe, and traffic still streams through the tunnels.

What the granite thinks of all this is not known.




Laurance, J. (2010) ‘Radon Gas: the silent killer in the countryside’, The Independent, 10 August.

Makley, M.S. & Makley, M.J. (2010) Cave Rock – climbers, courts and a Washoe Indian sacred place, University of Nevada Press: Reno.

Schlunke, K.M. (2005) Bluff Rock – autobiography of a massacre, Curtin University Books: Fremantle.

Image Sources

Haytor, Dartmoor –

Bluff Rock, New South Wales –

Cave Rock, Nevada –

‘Everywhere is somewhere’ – thoughts on passing through

“Good, yes, you’ve done well

Here is a small prize

The history of the world”

The Gang of Four (1982) ‘The History of the World’

I’m told that there’s a mediocre swashbuckling film from the 1950s with an inadvertent claim to fame. A viewer who knows what and when to look away from the foreground of the film’s harbour-side action will spot a Bedford van chugging up a hillside road on the far side of the estuary. I love that incongruence, the everyday bleeding into the scene despite the best efforts of the film crew to stage the scene for 15th century authenticity.

I love watching old films with outdoor action sequences. Not because of the story-line, but because of the incidental opportunity to see people, cars, buildings passing through the frame. As the camera pans on and each bystander leaves the shot I wonder what it was like to be them, where they were going, what was on their mind, who they were and what those accidentally captured slices of their lives can show and say.

Perhaps for a moment I feel that I’m passing along those streets, that I’m getting a glimpse of real day-to-day lives being lived in a moment of the past.

Child development experts (of a structuralist hew) tell us that infant spatial awareness passes through a number of key stages – from the egotic to the abstract. For Piaget and his ilk, early world perception is purely egotic. The toddler see’s the physical world around him only to the extent that it is an extension of himself and his support needs. Nothing else is or can be known if it has no connection to that survival preoccupation. But as the child grows this world-picturing becomes first nodal, acknowledging the independence of the surrounding world, but still from an instrumental point of view (i.e. ‘how do I get to the shop that has the sweets that I want?’) but then in time the picture becomes fully abstract. The world is accepted as exterior and independent, something to be encountered, and somewhere that exists even when not being looked at or used by the viewer.

I recall two moments in my childhood when my outlook moved onward along that axis. First, a family journey somewhere in the mid Devon countryside, travelling between a succession of villages. Looking out of the car window I saw a group of children standing on a street corner playing. The scene at first made me think, ‘why have these people come to this strange place that only exists for passing-through?’ and then reflexively it dawned on me that they would think the same of me and my street corner where they to drive past my home. At the time it seemed a very profound revelation. Writing it now it doesn’t. But that shift from egotic/nodal to fully accepting of independence of the world and the lives in it was important. An adult who could still only see the world through their own eyes and position would be missing so much…

The second occasion was at secondary school. A road lay beyond the school fence. Standing in the playground at break, looking out I would watch the cars and lorries trundle past. By this stage I was fully aware of the independence of those vehicles, and their part of the world from my needs and control. Indeed, I think watching those cars and lorries going about their business emphasised to me the smallness and insignificance of any one person’s place in the world. That baker’s lorry, those people driving to work, that birth-life-death cycle playing itself out around me was universal, timeless and unstoppable. Yes, this was the moment that I developed a sense of system. A sociological epiphany of soughts.

So, as I seek out the Bedford van climbing that hill in that film I’m marvelling at the film crew’s inability to fully control their event, I’m trying to cast myself momentarily into the life-world of the driver and I’m conjecturing the plot of the delivery route that he was driving, the history, purpose and fate of the organisation he was working for and the arrangements by which the loaves of bread wobbling in the back of his van came to be made, shipped, sold and consumed. That journey had consequences, but they were ‘only’ every-day effects. The bread was delivered and eaten. No one would remember that particular loaf, or that particular delivery journey. Yet, this one iteration of the journey – a journey repeated without record on many thousands of other almost identical other occasions – was accidentally captured for posterity.

A humdrum moment frozen in the background of an unremarkable film, but for me it’s the most fascinating bit.

Photo source:

Aural history – time travel, double glazing and the lost sounds of the Seventies

“…how do we listen to sounds never before noticed, sounds long vanished or sounds that are not sounds, exactly, but more like the fluctuations of light, weather and the peculiar feeling that can arise when there is a strong sense of place?” (Toop, 2007: 112)

This blog-essay is about everyday soundscapes, what causes them, how they can be charted and why and how they disappear.

The drop forge in the valley

 “I remember lying in bed at night and listening to the drop forges drifting across the valleys.” (PoS 2012)

So recalls Martyn Ware, a founding member of the first incarnation of Sheffield’s electro-pop pioneers The Human League. Ware accounts for the percussive influence of Sheffield’s then remaining heavy industry upon their early dystopian music, a musical transcription of the pounding of the city’s foundries’ drop forges which is particularly to the fore in their early song ‘Almost Medieval’ (1979). To this stentorian beat Phil Oakey narrates the tale of an unsettling journey back in time to the pre-modern era, thus:

 “step off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit

 Behind the office swings the man on the gibbet…”

The point is made clear at the outset, for the League the past was grimmer (and grimier) than we might like to think, and everything was different there. In this early version of the world all the modern certainties are gone, and everything is degenerated. It is also sensorially different – it is a world of alien sights, smells and sounds. This is a “small world, dimly viewed through cataracts.”

I too caught a brief aural glimpse of Sheffield’s dull industrial thud when I first arrived here a decade ago. Early, on still summer mornings, already half awoken by vicious sunlight streaming through thin curtains, I would be fully roused by the kicking into life of the last remaining drop forge down in the valley. In response I bought blackout curtains and secondary double glazing. But still this behemoth found its way to me, the sheer force of this power press’s vibration through the neighbourhood’s ground and onward into the fabric of my home and the soft tissues of my head. After a couple of summers of annoyance the forge closed and eventually its structures were demolished. The site now sits empty and weed ridden, a scrub-gap between the local KFC and B&Q.

Listening again to ‘Almost Medieval’ a few weeks ago got me thinking about the soundscapes of my own past, and of their unattainability. The Human League portrayed their imagined trip back in time as considerably less than pleasurable. But it is the alien quality of the experience (rather than its repulsion) that intrigues me the most. In response to the song I recall a soundscape experienced from my childhood bedroom. A sound finding its way into that room via the windows. A particular set of sounds – cars ascending a gentle rise, driving up the valley in which my suburban home was situated. A particular car and engine tone, a particular interaction of rubber on tarmac, a particular reverberation of that sound within the funnel of the valley. This was all delivered into my bedroom until we got secondary double glazing (and a few years later proper double glazing – the old ‘crittall’ metal single glazed frames having finally been removed). On the arrival of these enhanced interfaces, those sounds faded from the sensory experience of being in that room. Only on summer days with the windows open would that outdoor soundscape tentatively venture inside again.

The impossibility of reclaiming soundscapes

So, I started wondering whether – if I went back to that house now and opened the window – would I hear that soundscape again?

I don’t think I would, and here’s why, a combination of reasons:

1)      As we age our hearing capabilities change. The range of our hearing recedes. Only the truly young can hear into the high pitch spectrum. So, if I went back now there are acoustic fractions of the soundscape that I simply could not register anymore, no matter how much I might want to.

2)      Cars have changed. So have their engines and the petrol inside them. Lead free fuel burns differently, engines are more powerful and the gentle rise is now achieved in lower gear than that prevalent in my childhood.

3)      There are more cars. There would be more traffic noise. A more complex set of sounds than the lone small car that I nostalgically imagine drifting past my window.

4)      The arrangement of gardens has changed. Many of the front garden trees have been removed to create car ports. Those that remain are bigger. Back gardens are now more paved, and the pigeon lofts at the top of many of them when I was young have decayed into nothing. All of these factors would result in a different echo profile for the car-sounds within that valley.

5)      Extension of the surrounding suburbs has reduced the proximity of that street to the countryside, resulting in fewer birds and their song (and less variety of those birds that are still there).

So, those sounds, and the environment that combined to produce and propagate them, have gone. Travelling in space to the place where those sounds once were will not achieve rediscovery of that soundscape, even if the double glazing is removed, or the window flung open. These then were the sounds of the Seventies, a product of a moment in time and its physical (and human) parts.

Sound and the Seventies

I recall also that there was a portion of that childhood soundscape that came only at night: Concorde’s sonic boom as its shot overhead Atlantic-ward. Unlike the gentle rumble of suburban traffic noise, the arrival of the sonic boom with the launch of Concorde’s supersonic trans Atlantic service from 1976 proved to be a very public, and hotly debated, development in the national soundscape, and noise pollution came to be THE pre-eminent environmental issue for much of that decade, before declining subsequently to its more recent ‘cinderella’ status.

During the late 1960s a number of developments co-incided to raise noise’s profile. Concorde and the ‘threat’ of supersonic aviation was one. The ‘great’ motorway building phase was another. In turn these developments led to new laws focussed on control of construction site noise, occupational noise exposure and principles of compensation for land blighted by these new noise-bearing transportation schemes. Meanwhile technical standards and controls started to appear by which the permitted noise emissions of vehicles and other machines came under control. Noise – for a while – was a very hot political topic.

I have a copy of a 1971 book, The Assaults on our Senses by John Barr. Evidently Mr Barr had already made something of a career out of chronicling the way that the modern world was dragging everything to hell, his previous work having been titled Derelict Britain. Barr’s 1971 book attempted a sensory engagement with environmental problems as they were then framed in public consciousness. First, he presented sight and squalor offending that dominant sense. Then he moved on to hearing, and the offence of noise. In doing so he drew a distinction between ‘noise on the ground’ and ‘noise in the air’. In his discourse upon aviation noise Barr was very much ‘of his time’, with anxieties about the imminent introduction of Concorde’s transatlantic flights, the feared impact of its sonic booms upon dairy herds and human mental health to the fore. Evocative campaign groups, long since gone, are name-checked in his book: the British Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (founded 1966), the Anti-Concorde Project (1967) and the UK Federation Against Aircraft Nuisance (1968).

But for Barr:

“Not even the thunderclaps of super-sonic airliners in the 70s will displace ground-level noise as the most continuously irritating, physically and psychologically damaging, ingredient of Britain’s urban climate” (71)

Barr draws a bleak picture of a world drowning in sound, of industrialists rubbing their hands with joy at the productive clamour of their workshops, and of a cacophony of cars. But amidst this assault on noise, Barr momentarily falters, acknowledging the habituation of most to the everyday sounds of life, and chillingly depicts the horror of pure silence, the sensory deprivation of a sound-proofed chamber in which a subject is left alone with only his heart beat, breathing and the movement of his eyelids as acoustic companion. Even Barr concedes that sometimes, some sound may be better than none at all.

But like Barr, most of the debate (and legislation) about noise, as originally and influentially framed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still focuses resolutely on noise as ‘pollution’, noise as something undesirably and that threats to the tranquillity of silence. This approach remains evident in the urban noise mapping required by EU derived ambient noise mapping laws – the map as a register of zones requiring action (‘acoustical planning’) to reduce ambient noise and thereby improve human qualities of life.

Silence, and the individualisation of soundscapes was often what these laws and policies espoused. And here I think of Richard Sennett, who portrayed evidence of a widespread retreat from the public realm in his The Fall of Public Man (2003). Whilst he used the notion of individuals retreating into their homes and shutting out the ‘public’ world outside metaphorically, as symptomatic of a wider retreat from living with a public realm, we can actually take this image literally. There was a physical retreat, an attempt to block out the world beyond the private realm of the home: this was the rise of double glazing in the 1970s.

Yes the double glazing craze was partly driven by energy efficiency (the 1973 energy crises certainly focussed the minds of homeowners on their spiralling fuel costs), and a vague sense of being ‘modern’ via home improvement – but there was also much made of the new technology’s ability to muffle the home against the noise of the outside world too. It is no coincidence that the raft of compulsory purchase laws made in the early 1970s, and their calibration of compensation principles for homeowners afflicted in the wake of new motorway schemes and airport expansion often offered up double (sometimes triple) glazing as their recompense: the victim fortified indoors in the face of an unstoppable march of concrete laying outdoors.

Thus, modernism’s project aspired to a technocratic control over soundscapes, ambient sound as an unwanted by-product of unstoppable progress, an externality, something to be channelled, muffled, designed out by the technocrats, the planners and the lawyers.

Charting soundscapes

Yet in recent years due to a congruence of technology and aesthetic sensibilities, some ambient soundscapes have come to be seen as a resource to cherish, a facet of place to characterise and/or an engine of regeneration (the vibrant consumerist ‘buzz’ of the plaza anyone?). Alongside the established ranks of the motorway scheme’s acoustic engineer and the ‘noise policing’ of Environmental Health Officers  we now see poets, ‘sound-artists’ and other enthusiasts attempting to valorise ambient soundscapes. Notable projects have included The London Sound Survey , the British Library’s UK Soundmap project and the Positive Soundscapes Project. These initiatives (and many others) create a strange mesh of acoustic science and aesthetic poetics.

There is a conservationist sensibility to the fore here – born of a realisation that soundscapes can be lost for ever. And this sentiment can come to the surface now, because technology enables us to have a realistic stab at capturing soundscapes in a meaningful way. Smartphone apps, social media and digital recorders enable collaborative archival ‘capture’ of samples of soundscapes for posterity, with linking of those samples to maps via geo-coding enabling an interactive place-sound (and time) based interrogation of the aural archive.

Perhaps when they are grown up, my kids will be able to salve their adult nostalgic yearning for the lost soundscapes of their youth by logging into one of these archives and re-living the sound-moment courtesy of a passing enthusiast’s carefully executed and geo-logged sampling of the local sound-world outside their bedroom windows earlier today.


Barr, J. (1971) The Assaults on our Senses, Sphere: London.

PoS (Port of Sheffield) (2012) The Port of Sheffield Digital Trail at

Human League (1979) ‘Almost Medieval’, Reproduction, Virgin: London (Song). Available as a rather odd mash-up of various 21st century ‘knights and castles’ films, 1979 performance footage of the Human League performing the song and shots of office life and buildings:

Sennett, R. (2003) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin: London.

Toop, D. (2007) ‘To move with sound’ in: Carlyle, A. Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment in artistic practise, Paris: Double Entendre (reference via Taing, Z. (n.d.) ‘Sonorous City – London Soundscape Project’ at:…/ZaiTang_KandKleeElecAcouEssay.pdf)

Picture credit:

Interior View of the Old Duff-Norton Plant (Allegheny Drop Forge), 1925 Otto Kuhler (1894-1976) via

Always searching for somewhere to park: some ruminations on cows, clamps and immobilizing motor vehicles

“The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think”  Tom Vanderbilt

So, I step out of the supermarket and look across at a familiar scene: the dark bunker-like edifice of the local Boots store’s loading bay. But today I have illicit car parking on my mind so the large ‘No Parking’ sign and elderly perimeter chain catch my eye. That will do nicely. I position myself to take a picture. It starts to rain, but I am resolute. This side road is quiet; click – photo one achieved.

But then a flurry of cars mess up my view, and suddenly two cars in turn glide off road into this prohibited zone. Each driver looks slightly surprised at the other’s like-mindedness, but in an unspoken balletic dance they both park up in this space. One car leaves almost immediately. But the red car stays. Slightly miffed I decide to try and freak the driver out by carrying on snapping. We exchange frosty glances as he and his wife (both retired and not all looking like they have any occupational association with Boots or its logistics) step out of their shiny red sports car and set off for their shopping spree, no-doubt regaining smug composure as they walk off:

We are not weak.

We know where to park.

We’re brave enough to ignore that sign.

Experience tells us that nothing happens if you park here.

Thinking about parking

According to Ben-Joseph (2012) vehicles are immobile for 95% of their working lives, they have to occupy a static point in space during such states of ‘rest’. Parking is a fundamental necessity in the urbanised world, and it provokes its own grammar of reading the streetscape – the 100 yard stare of the driver, hoping to spot a place to park-up before he has already driven past it. This need-to-park shapes how we design, manage and interact with our urban realm. As Paul Groth has put it, rather grandly:

“The ancient Egyptians organized their life and their gods in reference to the life-giving Nile. Colonial New Englanders organized their village life around the axis mundi of the meetinghouse, the place that manifested their connection to the cosmos. Although it happens just below the level of awareness, the parking space generates the most significant sense of personal and social place in the cosmos for today’s urban Americans; it is their axis mundis” (quoted in Ben-Joseph, 2012: 3).

In 1990 I stood in the basement of a Barcelona bookshop killing time. Whilst most of the books there were in Spanish, one caught my eye. The title was simple, a single English word: Parking.  I’ve never seen the book since. In my mind’s eye I see it as filled with elegant three-colour (black, white and red) stylized diagrams of parking manoeuvres, each page an instructional yet beautiful diagrammatic  depiction of a vehicular manoeuvre. On balance, I think it was probably an art book, but maybe it was an instructional manual, I really don’t know. It hovered indeterminately between the two. Whatever words were written there were in Spanish, so they didn’t help me understand the context of this book.

In a mild way that book haunts me to this day. A taxonomy of vehicular dance, a mapping of the possible ways in which a car can move in relation to other obstacles (many of which where in the book – as in life – other cars). There’s a great game – Rush Hour – that explores this, a puzzle in which a packed congregation of vehicles must be unjammed by the trial and error sliding of cars and lorries until a way can be found to unlock the gridlock.

The book left me with a feeling for the urban tessellation involved in finding (and slotting into) a parking space. That feeling that everywhere is almost full up, a clock ticking, time and space running out. That act of driving around looking for somewhere geometrically viable to park in, yet with an additional essential evaluative layer within the search algorythm: consideration of where it is permissible to park. Here’s where I return to the domain of mundane law, and it’s shaping role, within spatiality and the normative dimension of everyday life.

Let’s momentarily go back to the rear of the Boots store. The loading bay and its sign sit there passively, come rain or shine, cars coming and going – a testimony to the approximateness of such mundane, everyday declarations of territory and the city’s tantalisingly prohibited but parkable forecourts, bays and verges. As the red car shows, if you want to stop people parking you have to do something more than signage, and the available options are about to change.

On the 1st October 2012 it becomes a criminal offence in England to clamp or otherwise immobilise a vehicle because it is parked without the landowner’s permission on private land. This provision is a small portion of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which primarily deals with the more dramatic civil liberties issues of biometrics, the regulation of CCTV and powers of entry to land. Here I want to think a little about parking, clamping and the mundane interactions of law and the technology of vehicular immobilization. Along the way I will also have something to say about ancient laws on seizing straying cows.

Thinking about clamping

In 1991, very early in my career as an apprentice lawyer, I was asked to research the legality of vehicle clamping for a client, a local University. As I looked into it I found that the legal research trail was pointing towards medieval legal rulings about rights to seize and retain livestock that had strayed onto your land, the ancient rule of distress damage feasant. That rule was a pre-industrial one, and as regards seizure of livestock it was abrogated in 1971 by the Animals Act. But that Act said nothing about the curbing or abolition of the rule as it had come to be applied to non-animals in subsequent cases. By the reign of Charles I it had started to be applied to inanimate objects, and in 1853 it had been successfully invoked to impound a railway locomotive that had trespassed onto a competitor’s line. I relished this chance to read about ancient cases of bovine ransom, and train confiscation.

At the time of my research there was no regulation of the newly emergent ‘industry’ of vehicle clamping and release fees, and in the intervening 20 odd years there few cases have reached the senior courts to specifically develop this area of law and portray it in the modern way (with cars) rather than the ancient one (with cows). But my legal training told me that cows and cars can, at an appropriate level of generalisation, be treated as the same thing. The search for answers to legal research questions often requires this descent into the realm of analogy.

Whilst a mundane – everyday – issue, clamping proved to be an emotive one over the last two decades. In the handful of cases in which its legality was tested the courts equivocated – they didn’t like the idea that private landowners, or their clamping contractors, could set their own penalties, but they accepted that someone parking on private land in an area where a notice clearly indicated that no permission to park there was given, amounted to an agreement – a contractual acceptance of the fate that would befall you if you proceeded to park there.

Attempts were made to shave off the exploitative extremities – introduction of codes of practice, formation of a clamping association and a training certificate (a similar trajectory to the ‘professionalisation’ of bouncers (night club doormen)). But the base question remained – was clamping (and charging of a ‘release fee’) lawful, and if it was should it be outlawed?

Well, as culmination of a cross-party trend, the 2012 Act, finally, sees that question answered. Clamping or towing away is now prohibited.

Thinking around barriers

But (there’s always a but) this prohibition leaves open other ways of achieving immobilization and defence of private parkable spaces. There is nothing in the new law to stop landowners introducing barriers – pole gates, chains, gates or other ways of closing a space to access or egress and as a result trapping the trespassing car inside. Provided the barrier was present at the site when the unauthorised parking occurred (even if not deployed to prevent entry – i.e. raised or not fully chained across) that will be regarded as a lawful restriction of the vehicle’s movement if those barrier devices are later moved into a ‘closed’ position. A removal fee could then still be charged, and such a charge would still be upheld by the courts provided it was shown to be a genuine measure of the cost of attending and opening the barrier, rather than a penalty aimed at punishing the unauthorised parker.

Wheel clamping was an innovation of the 1990s. Prior to that decade unauthorised parking spaces were controlled by chains, bollards or pole-barriers. But these were largely plot-wide controls. The whole loading bay (in my example) would either have to be open or closed to access at any single point in time. The clamp enabled a selective, more targeted control of territory – and a strategy which could be more readily commercially incentivised and outsourced. For the first time, by these means, individual cars could be targeted. The plot could be left physically open to access (e.g. for lorries arriving there throughout the day), and the rules of use could become more differentiated. And all of this was now achievable without the need for a permanently resident parking attendant (anyone remember their little huts and ex-colonial seeming uniforms?). Instead of a simple binary of closed/open-to-access, controls over duration of stay, type of vehicle and permit-based parking could all be enforced through immobilization against individual cars without affecting all other users of that plot, or entailing constant human oversight.

The banning of clamping and towing will see the return of older technologies of parking control – access barriers, bollards and chains (but probably not resident parking attendants). So – get ready – here come the boom days for the barrier designers and suppliers and the men driving round in vans, opening up barriers after payment of their release fee. The clamp may be dead, but vehicle immobilization will evolve via a new wave of urban plot re-enclosure.

Watch this space (but don’t park in it).

Ben-Joseph, E. (2012) Rethinking a lot – the design and culture of parking, MIT Press: Massachusetts

Stories of owning and dwelling: a plantation hilltop near Boston and a car park near Torquay

I’ve just finished reading a book entitled Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land by the North American nature writer John Hanson Mitchell. The book was first published in 1998  and over its 300 pages explores Nashobah Plantation, a sixteen square mile rural hilltop estate 35 miles west of Boston, Mass. Mitchell’s is a search for the essence of this area, though consideration of the ‘interactive effects’ of its ownership history over the 350 years since it was ‘granted’ to a local Indian tribe on the occasion of their Christianisation.   He chronicles the decline of Indian ownership and the means and stages by which – through subdivision – the hilltop passed into the ownership of various reclusive orchard owners, arable farmers, developers, public utilities and recreational trusts. What is striking about Mitchell’s approach though is how he weaves himself, and those who he meets during licit and trespassing excursions, into this story.

By ‘interactive effects’ I mean how that succession of ownership was something made by (i.e. brought about by) actors in the story, but also how the rights and expectations conferred by ownership status acted back upon those actors – shaping their performance of notions of ownership, stewardship and territoriality over their portions of this hilltop. Whilst conceptualisation in terms of performativity is my overlay here – it is what Mitchell’s book effectively portrays in its attentive examination of this place and its layers.

The final parcel of Indian owned local land was sold to white settlers in 1736 by Sarah Doublet, the last living member of her tribe and throughout his book Mitchell weaves in and out of the image of that event and the ways in which it might be interrogated. He closes his book with the following reflection on the limits of an archive-only reading of this place and this act of ownership transfer:

“And we who are, by reason of English Law, the inheritors of this corner of the Western world do not know the full story of those who were the people of this place. We know only that she, Sarah Doublet, relict widow of said Thomas Doublet,  in consideration of the sum of five hundred pounds in bills of credit paid to her by Elnathan Jones, Gentleman, and Ephraim Jones, did fully and absolutely, give, grant, bargain, sell alien, convey, and confirm unto them and their heirs and assigns forever in equal shares, a certain tract of land.

We know only that if we go to brightly lit local town offices, as I sometimes do, we will be directed to a computer, and instructed to enter the name and street address of a certain tract of land in which we have an interest, and that there, on a clean, cold screen, we will see written certain facts and figures, the book, the page, and number, inscribed in the state archives, a record, a map, an accounting of structures, of square footage of those structures, of acreage within said boundaries, of taxes owed, and taxes paid, and then we will be instructed to unfold a large blueprint map and there, in straight lines, and inscribed with numbers and angles, we will see the place that was Nashobah, where this Sarah and her people once lived.” (290-1)

Mitchell is reflecting here on the fact that the ‘historical record’ (such as it exists) is a trail of land grants, transfers and related ownership and taxation records. These show how title (i.e. ownership) to the hilltop, and its parcels, devolved over time but other than providing names, they can give little insight into the human stories (whether of exchange or of use) that sit behind those documents.

Mitchell  bridges this deficit through an evocative medley of wise conjecture, interviews with long-standing residents, probing present territoriality via recreational trespass (‘cross-lot walking’ as he calls it) and at every turn an embodied celebration of the scenery.

The points that he makes in the paragraphs quoted above about the limits of the archive are all sound and important, but as a nature writer his main aim in his book is actually to flag the constitutive relevance of the ‘alien’ lawscape. He is showing his primary audience that this landscape cannot be understood without regard to the abstract imprint of law and its notions of property upon the land.  Whilst I – as a lawyer – instead counter-read his book as a refreshing example of how there is more to ownership than the legal dimension.

Mitchell and I would in default, approach this place from different disciplinary (and discursive) angles, but we happily meet in the middle, and that’s the point both he and I would want to make. To characterise landscape as dwelt place you need to meld the land, the laws and the people (the material, the discursive and the social if you wish).

In breaks during reading Mitchell’s book I have wandered the suburban fringe lanes on my doorstep here in my mother’s home town. These are narrow, high banked, rich red earth lanes with thick vegetation curling back over to form dense tunnels. Walking down them feels timeless, only the drone of traffic on the nearby ring-road breaks the revere. But wandering these lanes, and the way that they cut-through the later-built settlements in a way that would make no sense if those settlements had been built first, chimes to the enduring power of ancient trackways (and their attendant use-rights) to continue to shape the landscape as it urbanises.

And what of this town’s urban-fringe farmers? How would they compare to the reclusive stewards of property and self-contained freedom that Mitchell encountered on his travels? Presumably they are used to public access, they have no choice where public rights of way cut across their land (a legacy effect alien to Mitchell’s wander zone). Perhaps these farmers are content to bide their time – to await the subtle creep of urban development beyond the confines of the townscape into this  supposedly greenbelt hinterland. The focus of new development (out of town shopping centre, business park, new road scheme) has all been in this area in recent years.

At times whilst reading Mitchell’s book I have looked up, and out through the net curtains of my mother’s home at the expanse of roughly concreted parking bays, elderly ‘lock-up’ garages, unadopted side lane and expansive municipal gassed bank beyond that lie at the rear of her 1970’s terrace house. She has often regaled me with anxious stories about that land, its ambiguous status and uses. For, when these houses and the ‘facilities’ at the rear were originally built they formed part of a unified development scheme – a ‘council estate’ in which the houses, the paths, the roadway and the garage land were all built and owned by the local council. The council mended the road, painted the railings, leased the garages and parking places to its tenants. It also cut the grass on the expanses of communal embankments.

But then along came ‘right to buy’. Some of the houses in this terrace where taken into private ownership and the council’s unity of control (and responsibility) was lost. Subsequently the cash strapped council divested its remaining ownership of houses and ancillary land and facilities here to a ‘housing association’. The result: ambiguity and inattention. The unadopted alley is not tended by the council, the railings sit unpainted, the garages have fallen into disuse and the parking spaces are appropriated daily by staff from the local hospital, driven here by a desire to avoid the expense of the hospital’s now imposed ‘pay and display’ charges and the subsequent permit-only parking restrictions introduced by the council to deal with the knock-on parking burden inflicted upon the local streets.

But the orphan status of this ‘back of the houses’ zone leads to little prospect of enforcement of parking restrictions in this place. This is not ‘highway’ (therefore it falls outside of the council’s remit), and it is no-longer council land. Some of it is housing association land, but they have no incentive to intervene. Via ‘right to buy’ some of the parking spaces are now private – but with little prospect for protection of that privacy short of verbal or physical confrontation with the hospital parkers, pre-occupying the space with your own car or appealing to their better nature via home-made ‘disabled parking space’ signs which approximately ape the stylistics and words of official signage.

If I ever wrote a book about this place, in the spirit of Mitchell’s approach, my mother’s views would get a good outing. But I’d need also to speak to the farmers who once owned this land, the council’s housing department officials who proudly made this poured-concrete estate amidst communal grassland, the right-to-buyers who proudly bought-out their places, the succession of housing associations who have owned the remnants and the opportunistic hospital staff and tradesmen who walk proudly each morning from their cars, pleased in the knowledge that they have once again ‘beaten the system’; that their skill and local knowledge has found them this secret – free of charge – parking place. A place unknown to everyone else.

Except for my mother, her neighbours and everyone in the past who has ever dwelt here.

Mitchell, J.H. (1998) Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land, Perseus: Reading, Mass.

Virtually on the ledge at El Camino del Rey – sublime wondering and the wandering semantic.

A few years ago an elderly (but sprightly) uncle sent me a link to Daniel Ahnen’s famous POV (first person point-of-view) video of his perilous wander along the perishing elevated pathway at El Camino del Rey near Malaga, Spain.  I’m not sure why he sent it to me, as he didn’t know about my – at that stage half formed – interest in studying urban exploration and access/liability issues. Perhaps he felt I needed to get out more.

Actually, I think he sent it to all his contacts, perhaps it struck a cord with him, for over the years he had dabbled with home movies, once directing a spoof cliff top rescue with his family one idle Sunday afternoon (artfully turning the Super 8 camera at an angle to turn a gentle slope into the appearance of a steep cliff). Or perhaps it was the affinity with his more recent adventures filming inside new sewer tunnels as a favour for the local fire service. Whatever it was, that email brought Ahnen’s You Tube clip to my attention for the first time.

In this post I want to think about how it is that this walkway (and the act of walking it) is framed as an aesthetic endeavour, and how it is that this place and Ahnen’s video have each been co-opted by a variety of users and viewers. In short, to think about the ‘sublime’ importance of perilous heights as formulated by Immanuel Kant and others and also of ‘the wandering semantic’ as conceptualised by Michel de Certeau.

I will say something of the path itself along the way. But what I assemble here is compiled from other sources. I have never been there and don’t have a stomach for heights. Mine therefore is an indirect – a virtual – engagement with this place and its peril. And that’s my point…


As Ahnen’s video shows, the walkway is a dilapidated narrow concrete path clinging, at height, to the side of steep hillsides via rusty brackets. The pathway was opened in 1905 as a route for workman passing between hydroelectric plants in the area. It was upgraded soon after it was commissioned, in order that King Alfonso could inaugurate the new dams in 1921. El Camino del Rey means ‘the King’s little path’. The path fell into disrepair over the decades that followed, but in that state became a destination of choice for those eager to test their nerve there. Some of those who have ventured there have fallen to their deaths and in 2000 the path was ‘closed’ to the public. It was announced a few years ago that the path is to be comprehensively rebuilt by the local council at a cost of Euro 9million. The plan, therefore being to create a tourist attraction by 2015 – and improve safety there.

Sublime wondering

The notion of the explorer communing with perilous nature is a relatively recent cultural development. It was the Romantics at the turn of the Nineteenth century who popularised the purity, authenticity and enriching power to be found in ‘the wild’. But the poetry of William Wordsworth and his ilk was popularising a notion developed by thinkers during the previous century, a century in which a nostalgia for nature (and a reduced fear of it as ‘other’ and imperfect) came into ascendancy (in the face of the shock waves of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation).

The renaissance had helped to popularise the notion of the beauty of nature – but this was a beauty to be found in calm, ordered and gentle gardens. But in the early 1700s Immanuel Kant deduced that for a notion of beauty to make sense, it needed a counter-part. That a name was needed for uncalm, disordered and perilous natural places. And the name he gave to this was ‘the sublime’ (reviving and adapting long lapsed Ancient Greek concept). For Kant (1764: 46), both the beautiful and the sublime could raise pleasure in the beholder, but in different ways, for “the sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm…arouse enjoyment but with horror.” Thus a new aesthetic was formed, for “Romantics wanted their entire beings to be thrilled with a delicious terror” (Coates, 1998: 133) in the face of ‘the Wild’.

This theme was reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s [1792] influential declaration of Romantic sentiment: “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”.

But, the Romantics didn’t want to be taken over the edge (either literally or figuratively). The confrontation with the sublime forces of nature needed to be tantalising, but also safe and (as Coates notes) Rousseau caveated his adventurous declaration with precise prescription about how that rugged road should be presented:

“The road has been hedged by a parapet to prevent accidents, and I was thus enabled to contemplate the whole descent, and gain vertigoes at pleasure; for a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.”

And Edmund Burke [1757: 42], theorising the sublime in similar vein, had declared that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.”

Contemporary writers on cultures of extreme adventure like  Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007) and Laviolette (2011) point out that ‘the extreme’ faced in situations such as a walk along the ledge at El Camino del Rey takes matters to the outer limits of the sublime, because it entails a step beyond Rousseau’s carefully installed parapet, but there is still a safety-urge within such activities. Those who walk the pathway and survive are likely to have prepared hard for the task, with intimate awareness of their skills, balance and physical limitations. As Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007: 157) puts it: “The extreme demands that we get as close  to danger as possible while staying right on the edge of safety, barely holding the temptation to take one more step”, a fine balance that Lyng (2005) has conceptualised as ‘edgework’.

Ilundáin-Augurruza also reminds us that the sublime was not meant to denote a restful state of contemplation. That the pathos of the sublime lies in the conflict between imagination and reason when confronted with the ‘terror’ of nature. Rousseau may have prescribed a protective parapet, but this device is there to provide eventual safety (as in something to stop you should the gusting winds at the cliff edge suddenly prove too fierce). To experience the sublime does require some feeling of peril (but wrapped within an ultimate safety net).

This leads me to the virtual dimension. I’m interested in how the El Camino del Rey path walkers plan, perform and report their walk, but I’m also interested in how ‘armchair’ viewers (and others) have used Ahnern’s video to perform their own, safer, performance of the sublime.

Reading through some of the many thousand comments appended to the You Tube page for Ahnern’s video I was struck in particular by the following:


My first reaction was that that seems a rather impolite way to respond to Ahnern’s video (particularly as Ahnern died in the Himalayas in 2011 and – as other comment posters note – his video lives on as a memorial). But then when I acclimatised more to the abrupt register of many of the comments in this forum, it seemed to point to a more profound insight: that to this audience their familiarity with living life through a display screen and the athletic, perilous tropes of ‘computer’ games presented this POV video as unnervingly ‘real’ to the viewer. This was backed up by many posters remarking that Ahnern’s performance reminded them of a particular video game (and many different ones were mentioned). It didn’t matter that the viewers were sitting comfortably at home – in viewing Ahnern’s video they had felt genuinely exposed to the safe-terror of the sublime. And the safety was ‘backgrounded’, even though perfectly safe as viewers, they hadn’t felt safe. They had tasted the sublime.

The wandering semantic

These viewers were reacting in the way that Ahnern intended – in accordance with the ‘rules’ of the sublime. The other thing that struck me as I flitted between web sites trying to find out a little about El Camino del Rey, was how a variety of websites co-opted his video, and/or the pathway each for their own purpose.

I found holiday companies listing the site alongside more sedate ‘things to do’, climbing forums exchanging access information, meditations on the industrial history of this structure and a teaching resource pack designed by the Red Cross. There was also an article from the Daily Mail – marvelling at the checky otherness of people who might feel up to the challenge of this place.

In each of these sites a handful of ‘factoids’ about this place and the video were circulating. Often phrases recurred, suggesting ‘cut and paste’ across sources. Many sites told me that accessing the walkway was “technically unlawful but enforcement is minimal”. Some sites (particularly those written by climbers) pointed out that actually it is accessing the walkway via railway and other tunnels that is unlawful, and that climbing up the cliff face onto the walkway is not prohibited. Whether this is any more true that the more common interpretations of this place’s ‘banned’ status I do not know.

The one voice that was missing was that of the Spanish authorities themselves. Whether this is a language issue (as I only searched and read sites in English I cannot tell). But it emphasised to me that if you wish to prevent use of a dangerous structure that is cherished by an international audience then somehow the reasons for and terms of that prohibition need to be injected into the online community by which this place is ‘known’. There seemed something strange about reading about the perceived weekend only patrol roster of the ‘hi-viz’ guard at the railway tunnel entrance in another country. But the circulation of this practical information is precisely what the internet is both good and bad at.

Reading through the peer produced chatter about this place, I was reminded of Michel de Certeau’s conceptualisation of the ‘wandering semantic’. In his essay, Walking in the city, Michel de Certeau (1984:102) celebrates the “wandering of the semantic produced by masses that make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it, and diverting it from its immobile order.” At El Camino del Rey we see the wandering first, as a mundane dam workers’ pathway is ‘re-discovered’ and valorised by climbers and explorers (with the help of sublime sensibilities), then as the idea of this place proliferates with the aid of the internet and its forums accounts of visits, rumours of fatalities, hints of redevelopment and tips on security arrangements circulate freely and internationally, all with little sight of an ‘official’ (or as de Certeau would style it ‘strategic’) version of this place.


Burke, E. [1757] (1958) A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, ed. Boulton, J.T.

Coates, P. (1998) Nature: Western attitudes since ancient times, Polity Press: Cambridge.

De Certeau M, 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life translated by S Rendall (University of California: London)

Ilundáin-Augurruza, J. (2007) “Kant goes skydiving; understanding the extreme by way of the sublime” in McNamee, M. (ed) Philosophy, Risk and Adventure Sports, Routledge: London.

Kant, I. [1764] (1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, University of California Press: Berkeley, trans. Goldthwait, J.T.

Laviolette, P. (2010) Extreme Landscapes of Leisure – not a hap-hazardous sport, Ashgate: Farnham.

Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework – the sociology of risk taking, Routledge: London

Rousseau, J.J. [1792](1953) Confessions (Book 4) William Glaisher: London, trans. Cohen, J.M.

Photos used by kind permission of, there are many more from this spectacular set at:

Other links:

And with thanks to Uncle Jim.