Earlier this week I worked with a small team to launch a website for the Greater London National Park*. The park is officially just a *Notional Park, but it is a serious idea and their are some very good reasons why the park should be created.
I appreciate that for many people the idea of London becoming National Park is unimaginable. As well as some of the technical complications, the fact London is so urban is highly problematic for some people.
In the popular and political imaginations parks are remote, rural and wild. When I explore London I can see the ‘wild’ all around me, both in the individual animals and plants that do not recognise human theories, categories and constructs, and those that not only survive, but thrive alongside, inside and around the buildings, infrastructures and cultures that we define as urban.
The words rural and countryside do not mean an absence of human influence or management, far from it. Even those British landscapes that look most wild have been shaped by farming, grazing of game and hunting of our island’s top predators to extinction.
It may be easier to have a relationship with nature if you live in a rural than an urban place, but that does not mean it is a more important one.
Driving into a city like London I think it can be easy for the eye to be drawn toward its bright lights and tall buildings. I live in Ealing, close to Boston Manor and Brentford. When driving into London down the M4 motorway you know when you are getting close to Boston Manor because the planes for Heathrow are stacked into the distance and descending rapidly to your right. Shortly after you drive under the Heathrow branch of the Piccadilly Line the speed limit drops to 40mph and you are lifted onto a flyover that elevates you over Boston Manor, Brentford and Chiswick.
Understandably most visitors that enter London this way see big buildings that form a gateway into the city. After seeing the headquarters of GSK, large elevated car showrooms and massive adverts, many people will then look further into the distance and get their first view of iconic buildings in the distance.
Much like a drive-through being an unhealthy way to consume your food on a regular basis, this fast-moving and skyline focussed entry into the city is an unhealthy way to view, think and make decisions about how ‘wild’ London is. This is a place of woods, waterways and historic parks. The roar of the motorway may be unavoidable, but it is pierced with the sound of bird-song, adventuring families and the rush of the River Brent and its tributaries.
Yesterday I took my son on a three hour adventure alongside the M4 to experience what all of the motorway traffic does not see.
Why? We went to explore the woods, fields footpaths, towpaths and tree-tops to see woodpeckers, heron, parakeets, coot, moorhen, swans, geese, ducks, gulls, rabbits, centipedes, horses, squirrels, grey wagtails, roach, busy ant nests, worms and much more.
As well as seeing all of these animals had time to try a couple of different rope swings that we found, play several game of Poohsticks and climb some trees.
Driving down the M4 or taking the tube into London, the woods and fields that surround you are on the periphery of your view, but this marginalisation is inverted when you are exploring off-road.
Our walk ended at Boston Manor, a Jacobean manor house built in 1623 that can be found in Boston Manor Park. You can see and hear the M4 flyover spanning the park from below, but driving above you would never know of its grounds including a lake, woods and ancient cedar trees.
The shadow of this part of the M4 is a rich place to explore. A meeting place of road, rail and canal, its human presence is clearly imprinted onto the landscape. But discover this place on foot and you will soon see its engaging natural histories too. The juxtapositions of motorway, city and wildlife certainly highlights and deeply contrasts their differences, but when looking closer it is clear that wildlives are willing to live more closely with people in our cities – if only we will let them.
Do you think London could be a National Park? If so, you can show your support for the idea here.
Can you imagine living for a month entirely on things that can only be found within a day’s walk of your home? This is what Jess Allen did over the last month and I’ll be asking her why she did this on Twitter tomorrow night.
Jess describes herself as a “stereotypical dreadlocked-vegetarian-eco-feminist-environmentalist-caravan/yurt-dwelling aerial dancer, walking artist and academic hedgesprite with a horse” She’s currently doing a second PhD in performance, developing the practice of tracktivism with a President’s Doctoral Scholarship from the University of Manchester.
I’ll be asking Jess some questions about her work and experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #guerrillageography from 8pm (London time) tomorrow. I hope you can join us.
I’m very excited.
For a while now I’ve really wanted there to be a playful way for local children to engage with a particular historical geography of our local park. It’s called Blondin after the famous tightrope walker who crossed Niagra Falls on a 1,100 foot rope with a man on his back. The rope itself was just 7.5cm wide. This amazing effort happened back in 1859 and has recently been brought up again after Nik Wallenda made a similar crossing on a wire. Blondin lived by the park and as well as the park taking his name, two local streets are called Blondin and Niagra.
Last night I attended the Northfields ward forum in west London where I live. I had contacted my local councillor with with an idea last week and he had suggested that I brought it along to the meeting. I proposed to the crowd that we should have a line drawn 1,100 feet through the park on the path so that people can attempt to replicate his success. A sign would also be needed to explain the line, it’s heritage and to suggest some challenges to complete on it. To my amazement the idea went down very well, a vote took place and now we’re looking at designing the line into the park.
I’m excited to see how this line will act as a path for psychogeographical journeys as adventurers fear falling off the line and are drawn into other times and places. Children, families and other explorers will imagine and experience a blend of the river, waterfall, distance, sound, balance, drop, context, history, fear, playfulness, courage, geographies and pasts as they venture down the line and feel fragments of this inspirational story.
I can’t wait to try and walk the line myself.
An invitation to join an UrbanStory (non)violent walk.
Compared to many cities in the world Greater London is peaceful and relatively non-violent place. Within the city their is a mixed and complicated picture in which some people feel constantly at threat while others rarely consider their personal safety. It is the stories of violence and not peace that fill the time and space in the media and for this reason our understanding and sense of our safety is distorted (sometimes for better and sometimes for worse).
Maps can reveal the lie of cultural landscapes in the same way that spot heights and contours show the shape of physical land. These maps can be used to explore the peaks, valleys, ridges, cliffs and islands of issues that exist in and influence our lives.
UrbanStory is a new project that I am leading to physically explore, social, economic, political and environmental issues and themes. Using current data and mapping I will plan walks through (non)violent, (un)healthy, (un)creative and other ‘hidden’ landscapes that I hope you will join.
The first walk will focus on the theme of (non)violence. The route will be based on the latest data from the London Ward Atlas and the Metropolitan Police Crime Mapping and websites. With amongst the lowest recorded violent crime recorded it will probably start in one of the sub-wards of Cranham in East London and finish in St James’s Park (outside Buckingham Palace) in St James’s ward which has the highest rate of recorded violence against the person in London.
Taking place on Monday 11th July this 35km walk will take about 7 hours, but this will depend on the needs of the group. We will meet at a train station close to the start of the walk for about 11am.
If you would like to take part in this UrbanStory (non)violent walk please contact me here.