Geographical and cartographic projects are, most often, invested in inscribing desires and human movements of a particular kind: those that persist through the investment of material construction and administrative maintenance over time. Thus, the historical and cartographic persistence of the Roman site at Bootham Bar obliterates the Brigantian hub at Clifton Green, by virtue of it being a kind of geographical locus: in thrall to the ideal of universality and persistence. My interests continually move me away from these kinds of maps and views of spaces. After all, even the Roman sites have been in large part obliterated, forgotten and written-over. The long-term stability of any point or object on map is an anomaly, rather than the norm. Even the hills, if we zoom out on the chronological scale far enough, won’t stand still.
So, if a proper map becomes as large as its territory, we may as well go out into the territory to read human desire and movement: the traces of our psychologies onto landscape. The land contains many varieties of these traces: recognising them opens up new layers that connect a cartographic network of their own. One kind of trace, the ‘desire line’ across lawn, common land or mud, overflows the planner’s provision, cutting corners and making more efficient, direct or interesting routes from place to place. Often, these lines undo the supposedly ‘place-making’ strategies of architects, betraying our desire for rapid transit over curiosity, sociality or beauty. After pathways are overcome, railings follow.
Where lawns are less highly-prized, however, the desire-lines become more and more compressed, baked down in the sun and cracked after rainwater floods them and plants have given up the struggle. One such line, that I have used regularly over the last few years, seems to have become more used than the ‘official’ path: a rather dull arc beside regularly-speeding traffic, boringly called ‘University Road’ (Yes, it’s a road, leading to the University of York campus. Brilliant, you’ll agree.). On the other hand, the desire line (shown in red below) tracks a direct route from the road that leads in from the student suburb of Tang Hall, past grazing horses on a field that has views south on a clear day to three power-stations twenty miles away. At the far end of the trail, a giant fortress-like water tower stands on Siward’s Howe, the supposed burial-place of Siward of Northumbria, the 11th-century Earl mentioned in Macbeth.
The water tower (to the right of the photo above) is still an active site operated by Yorkshire Water, restricted with a few lines of slack barbed-wire at waist height beside the desire line. Protecting this site was perhaps part of the motivation in not constructing a pathway along this line. Still, after seasons of walkers taking the same route, a clear intersection at the beginning of University Road’s curve now marks the beginning of the desire line, increasing the traffic in turn along that route. Students, perhaps, are a key demographic for ‘cutting’ new desire lines: late for classes, or headed en-masse on foot for high-use sites like the University library. But in other places, even marked footpaths grow over with weeds and become impassable, especially in seasons of rain and sunshine like this summer. How do desire lines begin? There must be as many factors as there are pedestrians of desire, but the ‘official’ maps can, occasionally, provide an accidental impetus. Here’s the OS Explorer map for the area.
A cartographic near-overlap can lead to the first discovery of very direct desire lines, such as the one near Siward’s Howe. In the key of the Ordnance Survey ‘Explorer’ range, the similarity between the symbols for ‘Other Public Access’ routes and ‘Boundaries’ are similar. To the less attentive (darkness, hunger, or desperation) or colour-blind, a ‘Constituency’ boundary must have, many times, appeared as a ‘Permitted footpath’, a ‘Civil Parish’ boundary as a ‘Other route with public access’ (see key below). Yes, the ‘desire line’ from University Road to Siward’s How is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps: but as an administrative boundary, not a route for feet. I remember hearing a very funny account by Dominic Dromgoole of his walk along the 146-mile Shakespeare’s Way, which became even longer when he marched for miles along a freshly-ploughed field that should have been a footpath, only to discover, yes, that it was really a parish boundary line.
An accidental origin hardly discounts the psychological or sociological significance of the Siward’s Howe desire line, of course. Conversely, it suggests the ways in which one might draw any kind of line on an Ordnance Survey map, and through the combined work of a thousand feet (the first ankles having the hardest task, meeting the most nettles), a route will emerge, free of charge and without planning or construction costs. Maps are, as I have suggested on this blog, a way of orientating the self in relation to a landscape, that then opens up according to the conscious and unconscious forces of desire, necessity and the walker/runner/cyclist’s physical abilities. This ‘line’ that I have traced, is actually more various than its directness (sometimes as thin as a cycle tyre) suggests: in muddy weeks, other lines have opened up across the same field (visible in the aerial photo). At other times, the tethered circles of horses make walkers more likely to diverge into new routes. Even more than a line that renews every season from the long grass and weeds, this is a set of lines that can ebb and flow from week to week, like a river that splits and reinforces with a million invisible eddies, but leaves a trace of the forces that time has rerouted.
Mythology, plant and animal life, a twenty-mile sight-line, convenience, and the desire to keep one’s shoes unsoiled. In it its teeming confluence of life, this line overflows the applicability of a name. Rather than a ‘road’ or ‘trail’, it is, in the end, walked: its birth and continuance.
If you’d like to see the ‘line’ from the ground, you can view my photographic account on my Flickr set, here.