Monday, 24 February 2014

The Walk Eat Talk Eat Tour: come on an empty stomach

I should begin by first making my excuses for this being a tour taken well over a week ago that has only now made it online. I relocated to Beijing while writing this one up and this blog is blocked there along with a great many other seditious online publications, so it has taken a little while to figure out how to get around this impasse. I couldn’t pass this tour off as yesterday’s as it began with a topical sales pitch in Shoreditch Station, where I had arranged to meet my guide. A young man and woman from Beauty Group were stopping passers by and telling them they were lucky enough to be one of the first 25 customers of the morning and could thus take advantage of a tremendous cosmetics offer. Yes, for just £35 I could have walked away with a little black bag bristling with cosmetics that would otherwise have cost me over £100, a perfect Valentine’s Day present, etc. She did her best and I watched as she demonstrated the various pastes, powders, glosses and pencils but my heart wasn’t in it. It was still a £35 sale and when I saw the two of them still there over two hours later I started to doubt the ‘first 25 customers’ line and suspected it was more a device to inject a sense of urgency and exclusivity into what, for me, was at best an only moderately interesting offer.

The station was not only animated by Beauty Group, there was also a tour group assembling there and it was only after they departed that I found my guide Charli who was sporting a purple Walk Eat Talk Eat jacket. She led me out, past the group who had now descended fully into the history of old Shoreditch, and onto Bethnal Green Road. We introduced ourselves and it turned out I had some choices and options of where my tour would take me. Not eating meat this meant avoiding some places but with so many other options available I was not short of places to talk and eat.

Our first stop was bunnychow a South African themed fast-food outlet in Box Park. We got started straight away ordering a ‘Boston Beans’, a hollowed-out bread roll filled with beans, spinach and halloumi cheese served in a box. It was rather good and I started to regret having eaten that porridge for breakfast as I was only slightly hungry and if we were setting out at this pace and there were still 4 or 5 stops to come I knew I’d be struggling soon. This was not symbolic food or light tasting to accompany a story, this was the real deal and I was tucking into a second breakfast.

We then got talking to the chef who told us about the food, its origins, how he came to be making it and about the business here in Shoreditch. This got us onto the crossover between street food and restaurants, the festival circuit and much more besides. It was a pleasure to drop briefly into his world and hear in detail about something I might only otherwise miss entirely. There is something quite nice in general about this structure of tour where you get picked up and dropped in front of a number of people who stop and talk to you for a minute and then carry on about their business while your guide whisks you to the next one.   

Our next stop however did not feature any interviews; we ducked into Albion and I was invited to choose an item from the bakery table. The selection was of familiar British items like scones, macaroons and bakewell tarts but somewhat unfamiliar in that these had been well made elevating them above the Mr Kipling’s box of six. I plumped for the bourbon biscuit.

For a place that is branded as British, Albion seemed surprisingly continental European in tone which, I should add, I see as no bad thing. The espresso machine jumped out at me and made me have to ask, “what is British food?” Coffee, as I heard in a previous tour, has a longer history in Britain than tea so in a sense coffee is a very solid part of the British tradition as it has been consumed in this country for many hundreds of years. On the other hand, the beans are grown far away with packets sporting labels like ‘Produce of Kenya’ and coffee culture has only recently been re-embraced here in the UK where until fifteen years ago, it was pretty much instant coffee or nothing. What’s more, the idea of Britain is itself a historical construct; in the stone age, people ate and drank, not cappuccinos I suppose, but our Neolithic tribes consumed something and people were not busy with the idea of Britain let alone British food, that came much later. The idea of Britain that seems to be most in circulation today is one that is historically located in the period of the British Empire. Here in Albion they were improvising upon this theme but doing so in a contemporary way, a far cry from the Britain of the 1970s and 80s that I grew up in, a land of luncheon meat, spam and inedible school dinners. Today’s spam is electronic and today’s Britain articulated in relation to Europe.

Stopping outside on the street the focus of the tour now switched to history and I was told about Jack London’s visit here at the turn of the century and how Thomas Cook refused to offer him a tour so much was this considered a no go zone for respectable persons. Yes, at the height of empire some parts of the capital remained in desperate poverty. Indeed even the police, so Charli told me, would not venture into this cesspool of crime and deprivation. Times have changed! It is a designer shopping and creative industries hub with tour guides a plenty and now, with the Tour of All Tours focused here, it even has its conceptual tour guide, guiding the visitor around the guides. A sign of the beginning of the end? As we went further into The Boundary Estate and I was told about the efforts of early reformers to improve the district I munched on my quite delicious bourbon biscuit and tried to find sense in these multiple impressions and stories. This evaded me as the place IS as ruptured and in flux as all that and a tour that works off this premise will inevitably have to both feed them and tell them some of the stories.

We stopped for street art around Brick Lane but did not linger too long or get deep into the street art scene as the more dedicated tours of it do.

Next stop was a new chocolate shop on Brick Lane. We were meant to talk to the owner but she was in the midst of an involved business call (i.e. an argument) so we simply admired the high-end chocolates and ordered a chilli hot chocolate. This turned out to be another calorie hit with just enough chilli to wake the mouth up but not so much as to destroy the flavour of the chocolate.

Next came the piadina. This is an Italian fast food served up in a van behind Truman’s brewery. This seemed to be a family run outfit with fresh ingredients brought back from Italy every week, I was told.

What made this stop interesting for me was watching the food being made in front of us. It can be fascinating to watch somebody skilled in preparing fast food at work and while this was not so challenging a dish to make it was good to watch the process all the same. There is a rather tasty Beijing egg pancake with coriander, chilli paste and a dried tofu sheet that is made fresh in front of you here and it sends me into the same low-level hypnosis watching the vendors at work.

We made the near obligatory stop outside the mosque to hear about multiculturalism and were stood beside the Bangladeshi sweet shop to check out their offerings. The man in the background is arriving there carrying two trays laden with brightly coloured spirals of sugar and fat. We could have gotten some but I declined already knowing these sweets and feeling rather full from the onslaught so far. It would be interesting to make a calorie count of the tour and see what it came to, to then subtract the amount exerted in walking and discover the net balance. Applying this logic, what would be required to make a calorific neutral walking and eating tour? A stick of celery every 200 meters?  I guess that wouldn’t take on, not even with hardened vegans. This idea of neutrality is nonetheless an appealing one with carbon neutral travel and carbon neutral companies making much of their balancing equations, or I sometimes suspect, cooking of the books.

We sheltered under a coffee stall outside Spitalfields Church as the weather turned properly grim and I got some historical stories about the church and surrounding area. Stepping over the road I ran into Bill Gee by chance, Bill who is co-curating Inside Out Festival in South Dorset where I’m also making a tour for this Summer. It was funny for him to catch me hard at work researching one of my other tours. Walking through the gastronomically homogenized Spitalfields Market (over-run by chain restaurants like Giraffe and Leon) we arrived at another British themed food store A. Gold on Brushfield Street which caters to city workers and proudly displays all the old brands. I got half a scotch egg which I prudently saved for later. One of the themes of the walk is that ‘British food is not half as bad as people make it out to be’ and on the basis of this tour you could definitely agree with this sentiment. Granted, there are horror kitchens up and down the country, millions of people buy ready to microwave slops from supermarkets and you can still pick up a deep fried mars bar, if you know where to look, but that does not change the fact that there is a quality British cuisine and that it is not indelibly bland but actually rather good. The tour used food as the principal hook to get you from place to place and tell stories not just about food but also about the area on the way. While it can sometimes feel a bit split between these two focuses, for most visitors they are only going to ever take one tour of Brick Lane and combining food and local history is a way to make the experience as a whole an agreeable one. I felt that the history of empire and social class loomed large over what I experienced, yet a tour that articulated this in depth would be a very different sort of tour and quite probably not so enjoyable a one. My one piece of advice for would be tourists taking the Walk Eat Talk Eat Tour is to approach this one on an empty stomach, there’s a lot to take in.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Dorset Stones and Geology Tour: preparing for Inside Out Festival

Day three of my research around Portesham and Littlebredy got me on the bike again and up into the village. I had been reading the book 'Ancient Stones of Dorset' and thought it time to see how the reality compares to the page.

The centre of the village is hard to quite pin down but this shelter is one candidate for it and, next to it, to my surprise, is a stone that was listed in the book. This, apparently, is a 'mark stone' on a ley line that passes through the village church and onwards to tumuli and more stones. The theories in the book get, step by step, more and more out there, and even though I didn't get fully immersed into the Earth Mysteries section that explains site memory and how these stones will save the planet, I feel I am already in over my neck. The thing with the book is, it was composed from having done field work but then written from the point of view of one sitting down in a quiet place surrounded by maps. This meant that it is not wholly suited to being used in the field. I had the impression that it would be a lot more fun to have the author show me around and explain site memory, ley lines and the meaning of the stones rather than piecing it together between the pages. I might just write to him and see if this is possible.

I wanted to stay more focussed on the village and since that is the only verified ancient stone, I shifted my attention onto other phenomena. The water of the lake here is a significant feature of the place and I followed the course of it to see where it ran. I was basically interested in ways to use features of the place to navigate around the village.

After following the water course it was time to move onto power lines which create their own web. What is nice about them is that they cut across the built and natural environment in a different way to that of roads, paths or water course. The power lines sometimes cross diagonally over roads and weave their way between the houses which means that in following them you see the village from a quite different perspective.

Most of the tours I've discovered so far don't take place in Littlebredy. The village is a quiet place that few visit and I will have to talk about the area more generally and not just the village itself. In order to do this it can be useful to have objects and sites within the village which relate to locations outside of it. The roads are an obvious example, this now disused public telephone box another. 

This is the sign for the cycle route or should I say routes as the new Tour de Manche piggybacks onto the National Route 2 around here. I followed the route out through the far side of the village and into the countryside before turning around, getting up a pace and trying to experience Littlebredy in the way someone doing one of these long distance cycle routes might. As there are no shops, no pubs and nothing very curious to immediately draw the eye, the way I encountered the village was to simply cycle straight through it without stopping. The most memorable thing about the village, from the cyclist's point of view, is the hill you have to climb leaving it heading up towards Hardy Monument. In the cyclist discussion forum there is some debate over the newly opened (2013) Tour de Manche and the main topics  are whether to camp or stay at B&Bs, annoyance that some parts of the route have not yet been signposted despite the route having been officially opened, and how to reduce the weight of your gear. This last point resonated with me as I slogged my way up to the top of the hill.  

I then took a Geology walk from a guidebook written by professional Dorset Geologists which took me to this quarry. There was a detailed description of the rock formation that went quite above me, or maybe I should say, below me. In any case, it was rather esoteric.

There was the 'compare the picture' or in this case illustration with the reality trick and there is something quite satisfying about this that I cannot quite explain. It might be the connection between the past and present is made graphically clear or it might just be the feeling of completing a small visual task.

The geology tour took me back to the UFO junction of yesterday and once again there was a complicated description that you needed to be somewhat close to already for it to make much sense. Like the ancient stones, this tour would have been better with a live guide as the guide would have had to communicate in a way that the people following the tour could understand. I remember, for example, my Geography A level field trip to the Yorkshire Dales and while there were limestone pavements and all that, it was intelligible as our teacher knew only too well our not so advanced level. I remember that trip well also because we went to the Red Lion in Settle every night, but that's another story.

The one thing I will say in defence of the Geology Tour is that of all the tours I've taken so far around here, it has been the one that has taken me to the nicest places. Later in the evening I went to the pub here in Portesham and hung out with the locals and staff. They were a friendly bunch of people from a surprisingly wide spread of places: there was born and bred Portesham, South London, Romanian and Portuguese all siting a the bar getting on with it. I'm now done for this trip down to South Devon but will be returning in the Summer to prepare a tour of Littlebredy that will take place mid-September. I'll be happy to see more of this place and when it is a bit warmer and drier I suspect it will be easier to both spend time outside and get talking to people in the village. Right now it is somewhat in shut down mode but it will, I hope, like the nature surrounding it, blossom.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The South Dorset Ridgeway Tour

This was the first full day of work in the area and it began with a hearty breakfast over which I learnt from my landlady that she is a qualified blue badge tour guide. Outside the weather was doing its worst with a heavy hail storm so I had a good root around the bookshelves which were well stocked with guidebooks, maps and books on local history.

While the weather forecast was poor, it did clear a little and since I was here I thought I may as well just head out and see what happens. It is all experience and can contribute to the work, after all. My journey again began with Portesham Hill which is a proper test of the legs and willpower. I battled my way up and the weather was actually to my advantage as it was blowing a gale from behind me, effectively pushing me up the hill.

At the top by the completely exposed Hardy Monument it was not so easy to stand upright such was the strength of the wind. I rested my bike on the most sheltered side of it, further cycling not being wise, even kind of dangerous. With storm clouds massing I looked for shelter, the doorway to the monument being the closest thing to cover that I could find.

It was here I noticed the graffiti carved into the stone, Alf R Bates making a record of his visit to Hardy Monument a record destined to outlive him.

With the immediate threat of rain receding I looked for the South Dorset Ridgeway Path which passes this way. It helps to actually be on the path to see the path and once I found my first sign post I was up and away.

Not all the signs describe it as the South Dorset Ridgeway, some still describe it as the Inland Route of the Coastal Path, if that makes sense at all. There seems to be some debate amongst walkers on their forum whether this route is preferable to the purist's longer route by the sea that goes around Portland with opinion sharply divided.

I came to a three-way junction and became interested in the sign post that describes your options. It had mixed information. In one direction was the Bridleway and in the other two the SDR path, or so it seemed.

Yet the same post from the other side showed the SDR path taking the direction of the bridleway. The system of the circular markers and the wooden signs seemed to be at odds. I took my chances and followed my instincts setting off in the rough direction I could see on the map I had.

This led me around a bend until finally I could see in the distance The Hardy Monument ahead of me once again! I must have taken the wrong turn on that South Dorset Ridgeway junction with the bridleway I guessed.

I followed the path back towards the monument and was once again buffeted by the strong winds. When I got home later I read they were up to 70 mph in strength! This tree was up-ended by wind and so I had the idea to make some sound recordings of the wind since I will be making an audio tour and some sort of portrait of the location in sound might come in useful.

After this long diversion I returned to the original junction and studied at it once again. This bridleway really took me in the wrong direction it seemed to me so I again followed the path ahead between the trees hoping there might be some other clues that would set me on the right way.

Here I found a subtle junction with the main path (bridleway) taking the left and a small path heading off to the right. What exactly the orange circle is is quite beyond me, I didn't notice any UFO activity at the time and this just seemed to appear in the photos later so I'm going for optical effect in the camera. Anyway, I looked for signs but saw none and so explored the right hand path.

Following the path through a gate, around a small pond and then round a corner I discovered I was on the right path when I saw the next sign post. This is a rather laboured explanation, I know, but this is precisely the sort of thing that happens when you try following these paths: you stray from the route, you find your way back, you try again and then finally find your way. The reason I got lost was not the ambiguous three way sign back up towards Hardy Monument but because the UFO junction had not been marked and the main path was not the the actual path I was meant to follow.

Back on the SDR things were looking up again and I allowed myself to indulge in a little thought experiment. I had seen this route featured in the Channel 4 TV programme 'TIME TEAM' when they made a special feature on the South Dorset Ridgeway. One part of this had presenter Alex Langlands joined by an archeology professor from UCL who encouraged him to try an phenomenological approach to walking the landscape. That is to say, he was to follow the South Dorset Ridgeway for a couple of days and try to put himself into the head of an iron age man plodding the same track. He claimed that in spite of the Goretex and cameras he had some success in better understanding the 'ceremonial landscape' in this way. If it worked for him surely it could work for me! Well, I tried but kept on finding things such as this double style to interest myself in: the path continues on both sides of the fence, you are to pick the cow-free side.

There was then another hailstorm that I took shelter from, followed by a rainbow, and at the point where the SDR arrives at the road the cows were back in force and thick deep slurry too. The prospect of wading through that stuff again and to do with a herd of cows surrounding me, was not one I relished. Call me too modern, I retraced my steps and the stone age spell was well and truly broken. What did happen however is that I noticed the signage system of the route made more sense coming in this direction. There was not the same deeply ambiguous junction problem and this made me wonder if those making the route worked from West to East when putting the signs up. When a route has to function in both directions the person responsible for signage needs to be able to walk a route they have already signposted in the opposite direction as if they know nothing of the route. Either that or they get a colleague to walk it in the opposite direction and check it works equally well. It is actually not such an easy thing to do, particularly over a long distance when the work of laying out the signage is handled by different people who all have slightly different ways of indicating junctions. I remember following the number 1 cycle route though Kent some years ago and it was a complete mess with some sections crystal clear and some so opaque that they were more of a distraction than a help. SDR is not so bad but, like I showed, far from perfect.

This is the public art in the form of stones that can be sat upon and which invite the sitter to close their eyes and listen. I did so and heard a lot of wind. This reminded me of something I heard earlier about the South Dorset Ridgeway, that essentially 'they are trying to make it something that it isn't'. By which I took it to mean it is a pleasant walk through some interesting places if you know the history but it is not the new stonehenge just as The Jurassic Coast is not the Grand Canyon, even though they both hold UNESCO world heritage status. I see the hand of tourist development officers behind these efforts to rebrand the location and make it into a destination. The problem with this walking route is it is still going through too many working farms so it gets seriously gross underfoot in places and the signs aren't clear. Add to that the place is nice but it isn't exactly The Lake District or Scottish Highland and I see the point about trying to make it something that it isn't.

I cycled back down the hill in the face of the winds and ventured out again later to Abbotsbury to catch the sunset before heading to the local pub and doing some online research on further tours. Plenty more to investigate and another day of challenging weather.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The South Dorset Mud Tour: a day to forget on the South Dorset Ridgeway

Today's travels began in Portsmouth at Fratton Station. My initial destination was Dorchester and my final destination Portesham or perhaps Littlebredy, I was never quite certain which.

The reason for this ambiguity was the simple fact that I was staying in Portesham but doing research for the performance and audio tour that I am making around Littlebredy for Inside Out Festival, which will take place in September.  

I had every expectation of arriving into a flood zone as I had spent the previous evening watched one depressing weather forecaster after another warning of dangerous storms in the South West. In the event, I had a soft arrival with dry, clear weather and enough time to pick up a map and one or two books in Dorchester before arriving in Portesham and settling in. I then set out and my first encounter was with an elderly gentleman whose job it was to direct traffic away from roadworks. He was an affable ex-forces chap with time on his hands and I heard about his property investments and the traffic directing business, which takes him around the country. I then set out for Littlebredy and found The Valley of The Stones.

I guess I wanted to encounter the area without too strong a tour to frame the experience in one way or another or to direct me to take any specific route. I was instead allowed to make my own way towards Littlebredy using the footpaths. From the place's name, the 'Valley of Stones' I thought it would be full of stone circles and megaliths of all varieties, but instead it is notable for just a few large rocks that dot their way along the bottom of the valley.

Approaching the village I remembered there was a path I had wanted to take on my previous visit but was unable to due to limited time. I marched up it as I thought it necessary to find ways to gain altitude, Littlebredy being in something of a hollow. This picture shows just how much up and down the walking is around here; the land is folded and can be unexpectedly steep. The route up here from Portesham that I took on my bike was particularly challenging.

Perspective is a funny thing. From a distance these silhouetted cows seemed almost heroic. 

Up close, when I had to step into their field, however, it was quite another story. The mud  and shit came well above the line of my boots slipping down inside. The things I do for art... It was a similar story last time I was here walking around the South Dorset Ridgeway, we encountered a particularly grim patch, then, too. 

This is the style you cross to enter the South Dorset Ridgeway footpath. I was simply not going to make that step. I have my limits and tall wellington boots would be the only thing that would convince me that this was a good idea. There are, in fact, just a few too many places where the footpaths turn into slurry slides around here to make walking relaxing. When I return in the Summer it may be better but my guess is this is also an issue with the location of the paths as many run through dairy farms. 

Finally I saw what I was looking for, the notice about the change of name from the Inland Coast Path to the South Dorset Ridgeway. The bit I find amusing here is how it is described as "one of the UK's most important ceremonial landscapes." I think I will have to return to this idea of a ceremonial landscape.

The Tour of Tours Shoreditch Tryout

Last weekend I made an experiment to test out the material I have been gathering on Shoreditch and The City. It was a way of bringing some focus to the research I have been doing and offered me a chance to get feedback upon it before the next stage of making it into a more distinct work in its own right.

It is difficult to write about my own tour and make anything like the same sort of critical remarks as I make when reviewing other people's. I will instead just restrict myself to one or two comments. Firstly, I decided to borrow the hat idea from the Occupy Tour team. With me being tall already, wearing a top hat adds and extra bit again onto my height and means I don't need any umbrella to lead people, I am perfectly visible with the hat alone. More than that, it also has echos of Phileas Fogg the Victorian gentleman explorer/navigator of Jules Verne. I find this both amusing and sympathetic as I have just an element of these characteristics myself. The hat therefore gives me license to play up these qualities when so required.

It was a small group that I led, maybe 8 in number. This was a very manageable size and I didn't have to shout or play to the crowd at all. I suspect that to make the tour economically viable I will have to lead larger groups but if I had a choice I'd stick to this smaller number as it made everything more conversational. People felt easy to ask me questions and share their own observations in front of one another, something that larger more anonymous groups generally suppress. 

For the pictures I must thank Debbie Kent. She, like some of the others in the group, is also working in a related way on performances that deal with the city. My group was in fact a great mix of artists, curators and friends who managed to entertain one another very effectively as they made their way from point to point. 

The tour was quite simple and transparent in the sense that I did not try anything too smart formally but rather performed it as a report on the tours I had taken so far. Giving it in this way left me enough space to be able to perform it in an engaging tone. I should be careful not to lose some of this informality when I next begin the work of integrating the research and layering this tour in a more deliberate way. The comments afterwards in the pub were positive and constructive and I look forward to the Summer when I will complete this tour, start giving it to a broader public and ditch the padded coat.