Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Waylosing Tour

The meeting location for the Waylosing Tour was Birmingham New Street Signal Box which, handily enough, is not located on New Street at all, but is instead round the corner on Navigation Street. What's more, the sign marking this brutalist classic is located in a position facing the train line and is only visible from the street when seen above a wall in a few locations, none of which are actually on Navigation Street itself. This made it a familiar yet mysterious building in the very heart of the city and a prefect place to begin.

It had been raining all morning and the afternoon tour looked like it would be a wet and lonely one. Come 1PM, however, most of the people who had reserved showed up, ready for 5 hours of getting lost on the Birmingham streets in the rain. This was a hardy bunch. We began by establishing which areas of the city we knew best. The general consensus was that the South, West, and centre were the most familiar parts of the city, though there were some hardened urban explorers amongst us who had made it their business to see all points of the compass. While it would be easy enough for me to get lost in Birmingham as I don't know the city, showing this group something none had seen before was going to be a challenge.

With the East as our direction of choice, we set off into the drizzle which obligingly cleared in minutes to leave a mostly bright afternoon. A rhythm established itself whereby we'd walk a few hundred metres, sometimes a few hundred more, stop, look at our new location and consider the choices we had ahead of us.

When we stopped at intersections to discuss the respective waylosing merits of the different paths ahead, we also looked for things that could act as signs. This one for a solicitor is quite literally a sign, albeit one that was placed upside down. As often as not, a building, colour or object could do equally well as our waylosing sign. I like this business plate very much because it is a sign that poses more questions than it answers. Another early find was the sign 'Ask Italian' which was simply the name of a restaurant which sat beside one of the forks ahead of us. These simple observations were allowed to be what they were, i.e. they didn't have to be immediately smart or significant, but every now and then I'd bring previous ones back by mentioning them in case they could help us develop a narrative around the tour as it unfolded. 

These cones looked for the world like clues too. What they were pointing to or what underwater geography they marked was unclear but that did not stop them being signs all the same. A walk unfolds in time as well as space so there is always a going to be some element of narrative, but when we deliberately lay our mental traces as we go, this capacity to see it as a journey with a theme and logic of its own is greatly enhanced. When I made my trial waylosing tour in the city some 3 or 4 weeks ago, the walk came to its conclusion at the Ulysses Kebab Shop. Even though I don't eat meat, I was happy with the reference to both The Odyssey and Joyce as that rounded the walk off very nicely. I was hoping today's walk would start to make sense a bit earlier and not only come together at the end but I also wanted to genuinely work with what we saw and not impose a pre-determined meaning upon it. This meant we had to be patient and trust it would become clearer the more lost we got. It sort of did. 

At the same time as thinking about a story or theme to the tour there remained the very practical task of losing our way. One technique that was helpful was to switch levels from street to canal and back to street again. The canal is great as it has a different navigational logic to the street, what's more, you don't always see the surrounding roads when you are on this lower level so you can cut through otherwise easy to understand routes. You can only have so much of a good thing, however, as canals can also become predictable after a while as they are usually quite straight. 

We walked some real distance and the group was fine with this with no moaners. When trying to get lost distance matters. Thoreau's notion of a 10 mile radius from your home being a suitable distance for an afternoon's walk and at the same time corresponding to the area you can survey in a lifetime and still always find something unfamiliar, came to mind. That requires a conscious search for the fuzzy areas of the mental map and while we began with this idea which propelled us East, we then went through a number of other techniques to help us stumble upon the unknown. If I can imagine two different approaches to way losing I can see one as the search for the North West Passage whereby you have a known start and end point and try to connect them through unfamiliar territory, whereas a second model is to head off into the uncharted periphery with no defined destination. We were more the latter sort of explorers today, though we did have an end point of sorts: I had said we'd aim to be back in the city centre by 6. 

The ambient foods on this sign is what caught my attention. Not being in the catering business I immediately imagined it as food to munch on or suck discretely through a straw whilst listening to Brian Eno albums. We simply had to take a look inside. 

Instead of the large warehouse I was expecting, the doors opened into a single, modestly sized room with a man and a woman sitting behind a glass counter at the far end. Two freezers displayed some non-ambient weekly offers such as this 10-kilo pack of frozen squid tubes. Good value though they were, I regarded them more as an art installation than as serious foodstuffs. 

They had a remarkably good and inexpensive coffee machine so, with espressos in hand, we used the space as if it were a cafe rather than the order room of a warehouse. The staff were bemused but tolerant about us getting lost and finding them.

This alarming sign popped out though thankfully none of us were pulled over and strip searched for concealed squid tubes.

Refreshed and back on the road again we had managed to more or less lose sight of the landmark BT Tower that tethered us to the city-centre but, having made great efforts to remove that landmark, another replaced it in the form of these gas storage tanks.

We came to a large Chinese supermarket and restaurant which we entered as it was time for some refreshment. As we were no longer in the city centre and they had ample space they were fine with us just drinking tea in a way that would not be the case in Chinatown where a meal would have been required. I remember talking about the significance of the compass to Chinese cities and people's sense of orientation. It seems to me that in the UK we are less aware of this as the cities rarely follow grids but instead twist and snake according to the contours of the land with little unified order.

We walked some more and just as we arrived at Spaghetti Junction and looked all set to explore the nation's most iconic car structure as pedestrians, we changed track and dived into a bus. While the junction was no doubt impressive, it was also familiar to several of the group and exploring it would really be the work of a different sort of tour. I also thought about the sign we had seen earlier and made sense of at least one of them: 'Ask Italian' = Spaghetti Junction. On the bus we settled at the top and I asked the group to close their eyes.

Closing the eyes was strangely addictive. I had thought I'd keep mine open so I could oversee the situation and maybe take a picture of this decidedly odd looking group. Once I had closed them however, I found that it became quite compelling and instead started talking about what we could sense and where we might be passing through. In spy movies you see scenes of blindfolded men in the backs of cars being driven round cities to secret destinations; this was a budget version in which we made do with a West Midlands Bus day ticket. We came to a halt after some minutes and I was not sure if we were at the terminus or were taking a long stop. We waited till finally it was clear we were not moving and reluctantly opened our eyes and descended. The bus driver could not work us out at all.  

From there we crossed a park and entered a housing estate and finally were getting properly lost with no clear sense of where we were or how it connected to where we had come from. A large guard dog jumped at me from behind a fence, its bark and bite both scary but thankfully separated from me by metal mesh. While this would not have had such impact elsewhere, having the dog jump out at me once we had entered the lost zone made it more of a shock. I didn't know what sort of place we were in, how exactly to get out of there or indeed what precisely to expect. I won't exaggerate and say I was in a state of fear, but my emotional reaction was stronger as I certainly was that little bit less in control. We then stumbled upon this graffiti 'Hi bill'. I posed for the picture but as you can see, I was uncomfortable, expecting another vicious dog to launch itself at me from behind the black door on the right that bears a 'beware of the dog' sign.  

From the dog estate I then saw what looked like an informal entrance to a green space. We entered and found this semi-desolate location, the site of former construction that had been raised to the ground. I do not deliberately seek such places in the way some urban explorers do, but I do value them all the same as their official neglect permits all manner of unofficial activities to coexist making them paradoxically rich and diverse spaces. 

We saw a steady trickle of people passing through here, mostly young men on their way somewhere else. We, however, were occupying this space: this was our destination. As it was now 5.15PM and I sensed this would be the point in the day when we would be the most lost, it made sense to savour its character. I understand that Birmingham is quite rich in such spaces and this makes me wonder if this experiment were repeated would it be to a similar sort of location that we would be led or would the dynamics of the group lead us somewhere very different?

And here is a group photo of the merry waylosers from Birmingham basking in the warm sunlight. I was lucky to be accompanied by such a great group on this experiment as everybody was very easy to talk to and curious about the urban environment. I think we had pretty much all got talking to one another at some point in the 4 or 5 hours and those conversations make up an essential part of the experience transforming something that was a curious proposition into a genuinely fun afternoon out. It all had to come to an end however, and from here we switched mode from waylosing to wayfinding. We quickly found a bus back into the city centre, a ride which retraced our steps uncannily well. From an elevated position on the top deck of the bus it gave us an overview of the route we had taken and allowed us to review the day's adventure in 10 minutes flat.

We were swiftly delivered to The Woodsman where we drank some well deserved beer. We stayed for a long time (several hours) unpacking the experience and more generally unwinding. Thank you Still Walking and thank you Birmingham for entertaining this notion. It gives me an appetite to go further into waylosing and perhaps even expand the frame of it so that it could take in a whole weekend and take place in a foreign city, which would of course greatly aid getting lost. These are all ideas to turn over and develop at a later date but one thing I am quite sure of is that there will more tours like this in the future, though they will of course be quite different too, as they are all steps into the unknown.  

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