Lucy Frears: On Footwork

Writing for Footwork

A personal reflection on Walking Artists Network’s (WAN’s) Footwork, June 2013 by Lucy Frears

The walk, for the four that fancied a gentle riverside stroll from the hotel to the meeting place to warm up, started with a challenge, confusion but laughter. Fences, motorways and buildings forced detours away from the water to walk over concrete, that become more broken, uneven and split by weeds until it gave up and became a wide grassy patch with a strangely mown strip which led us to the road edge.  Rope walking along this trace of an edge, traffic was so close that we wobbled as the vehicles rushed past sucking us close, blasting us back with a bang similar to the rush pop you feel on a train when another train speeds past.

Although keen, we arrived late feeling foolish but adventurous.

As I approached the other WANs I realised that during my overnight stay and the short walk to find them, I’d transformed into a country bumpkin. My experience of louder sounds in Cornwall are: the wind that rarely drops, the sound of a lifeboat maroon that hails the crew to the harbour for a call out accompanied by the squawking of seabirds the detonation triggers, the distant toot of a train and music. Here in east London, layers of motorways full of cars, trucks, motorbikes, the new well-used train line and frequent overhead planes (so close panels and bolts were visible) distracted and dominated my ears in a way that surprised me. I couldn’t balance this city soundscape, over-stimulated and excited, my brain was reluctant to push any sounds into the background to select which to listen to.

This was even after a couple of days of preparation for concrete and traffic as I’d moved from the peace, clear water and primary colours of Cornwall to Portslade, just along the south coast from Brighton and separated from the sea by a channel and large industrial area. On closer inspection the industry was, in fact, more a processing area for waste – a function and landscape that was repeated during our route through the east end to Kent – claw, water, waste, hangers, power station….. an edgeland as Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley would have described it.

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And just as Fat Boy Slim and Adele have apartments by the water on the edge of the industrial estate near Brighton, the east end is also attracting its millionaires.  Although amused by the cockney language choice at the east end cash point, LucyFrears2

(of course I took the option to get out some ‘sausage and mash’), I had to question whether east enders are actually still in the east end?

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As another new apartment block gets built, this time on the corner of what was the centre of the ‘salt-of-the-earth’ east end – Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel, (described on the board as the ‘city-fringe’) the heaviness of how history and culture are being reframed in the east end of London hits me.  It’s not my manor anymore, although Dalston, Hackney once was.

If I have been this far east, where the walk starts, I don’t recognise it anymore except through books and soundscapes from Sinclair and other psychogeographers who have mapped its adaptation from homes to home to the Olympics. Strange sculptures, isolated hot hotel blocks (closed windows to stop motorway and runway air from entering, closed curtains instead of a view), large restaurant block, new curved overland railways on columns, wide sweeping motorways, tarmac runways. No place for a community anymore. Where do the east enders move to? Further east?

We walked trying to find them.  We passed expensive but rather ugly waterside apartments that slowly changed, as we moved along, into estates washed up on the river’s edge, jetsam identified by brick shade, design and small windows to peer out of onto the Thames rather than ‘feature windows’.  So sure that the occupants would not walk along the river or even look out towards the Thames around midday, the police practiced a rather thrilling attack on a launch a number of times, unless they were bungling a real terrorist attack.  So dangerously exciting and energetic on a sunny day, it pulled our attention away from the path, (dangerous in an area where poop isn’t scooped), and our conversations and became the topic.

Walking along, meeting new people, learning about the walking, artistic, intellectual parts of lives I was haunted by the area’s double in Portslade, by the names familiar from my time living in east London and those on recent news bulletins as the location for the butchered soldier.  There was slippage between the walk on this sunny day and the heat wave during Sideways, a walking festival from east to west Belgium in 2012 that at least eight of us had participated in.  I had not seen most of the other Sideways’ survivors since then and so reflections and comparisons to that experience were present all day. The distance, beyond even a good trek, was a nod to a Sideway’s length.

Before travelling to Belgium, not wanting to let down the Walking Library, I had trained for Sideways. Not only had I not trained for this long walk, I had just got through a period of weeks in front of my desk with little attention to my body at all.  Still folded into a hunched desk shape I hoped that I could unfurl and make it to the end. I knew I could do this distance, I had learned that I could do much greater distances during Sideways. I was not the only one facing this urban to wasteland to lake (within an industrial estate) landscape walk with insecurities about fitness.   Most were concerned with joints, soles, rubbing, chafing but it was, in the end, hay fever and sunburn, which caused more discomfort for walkers than even blisters.

As we followed water, going forwards, doubling back to cross the river, bypassing mud that would pull us in (apparently), crossing jammed motorways, over and under, weaving through estates, trying to find our path when it strayed from the water’s edge, we got to know each other a little better, identified the wild plants a little better (sorrel, rocket, dill), despite their sometimes grey disguise, developed our sense of where to look a little better. LucyFrears2ndLast

The route was so surprising, so out of the ordinary for a pleasurable stroll that it gave space for people to make comments and connections to thoughts or places that could be shared with others and stimulated the conversation between those who were strangers.

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Rusty watery structures that we walked past and under looked well used once, but now rather redundant.  History and memories of this place were sinking into the mud and there were few people around to ask. Those spotted risked being trapped in a circle of sunglasses, maps and buzzing questions.

We created a spectacle – well-prepared urban rambler tourists spreading out over paths that only dogs seemed to walk, despite frequent rebranding, looking for the sublime and pointing out half submerged irons, cones close-up and monstrous flood gates, the jammed slope of the M25 bridge and anti-terrorist speed boats in the distance.

The walk ended as it started for the seven who had missed the horrendous description of the last few miles and promises of showers and clean clothes. Suck, push, bang from the lorries, scamper scamper over fast slip roads on blind corners.  We passed over farms split by the road, horses fenced in by a constant scream of traffic, hot tarmac, car drivers’ pedal to the metal sprints between jams on a daily commute.   We were still laughing and chatting, our silhouettes more relaxed than when we started, small movements compensating for the wear of path.

‘Tracing rivers makes the most charming of travels.  As the lifeblood of the landscape the best of the wilderness comes to their banks.’

John Muir.

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