Monday, 22 March 2010

Bringing the map to life

Continuing up page 35 of my A-Z and having by now abandoned any pretence at following my algorithmic directions, I settled into what I like to do best, which is just to go where my feet take me.  The beauty of aimlessly wandering an area that you don't know is that you don't have any preconceptions - whatever is round the corner is bound to be unexpected if you've never been there before. 

Having just written that, I immediately see that it is not the whole truth.  If you look at the map, as I did when selecting my page, you can't help but build a picture in your mind of what the features may look like.  I had always assumed, for no good reason, that this part of London was flat.  The A-Z gives no indication of contours, being just a pattern of streets strung across the page.  I was surprised to find that Chingford itself is situated at the top of a hill from which there are fine views back towards London.  The businesses on the main road are a bustling hotchpotch of utilitarian shop fronts and streamlined, faded art deco facades.  The map does not reveal those little details and nuances that differentiate one area or street from another:

"the sudden change of atmosphere in a street, the sharp division of a city into one of distinct psychological climates; the path of least resistance - wholly unrelated to the unevenness of the terrain - to be followed by the casual stroller, the character, attractive or repellant, of certain places."
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography

Quiet terraces of brightly painted and well-maintained Edwardian houses give way to streets of more aspirational 1930's suburban semis, set back from the road and sporting ornamental gateposts and sub tropical palm trees....

I am probably guilty of what Debord terms 'exoticism which may arise from the fact that one is exploring a neighbourhood for the first time' which he deems to be 'unimportant and subjective, soon fading away'.  He emphasises rather the behavioral disorientation over the element of exploration.  I hold my hand up - guilty as charged.  Surely that is one the pleasures to be experienced from this sort of wandering - the fact that the area is different from one's normal environment cannot be discounted and leads to a more attentive frame of mind and a sharpening of the imagination.

The map showed a tantalising string of reservoirs all down one side - part of the Lee Valley reservoir chain, which supplies drinking water to London.  On the map they are edged with the dotted lines denoting a footpath but the terrain resisted all my attempts at exploring it.  Try as I might it remained out of bounds, one of those areas destined to remain unknoweable.  This part of the map at least, was not able to be brought to life - below is a photograph showing the fence bordering the reservoir on the horizon, the lone chair a metaphor for the absent view.....

.....and the lengths they go to keep you out!


  1. "you can't help but build a picture in your mind of what the features may look like."- yes, and the reality is so different from that picture I did imagine by map- it is my personal experience, too -nevertheless, I like to wander along the lines on the map and to think out some walks! -Chingford seems to be a fine, noble, clean area - middle- upper class? - looking very English in my -sorry, a bit cliché- opinion - I like the row of Edwardian facades -one style but looking different- and the bay-windows (?), also the Christo-like wrapped up car! A fine picture is nr. 4: three fences -one after another- and one lonely chair -a totally closed area, security level nr. 1- and it is okay- but in my German-minded feelings such a row of fences may evoke some sad memories of our history.

  2. Chingford is a typically English middle-class suburb but only by walking the streets do you become aware of all the subtle differences which are so often associated with the very complicated English class system! Well spotted with the Christo reference - I really wanted to go up and have a peek underneath.