In the time before, I was a little obsessed with the overlaid memories that build up in a place, enjoying being shocked into accessing them unexpectedly in the course of my everyday life by an emblem, a noise or a particular smell. When I used to write more often, and write fiction, this was a bit of a theme. I autowrote (and then rewrote, and rewrote) a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness short story based on this idea, while on a train back from London, about an evening walk from Portland Place to Waterloo. (Or at least, I autowrote it until the man next to me couldn’t hold out beyond Salisbury and started quizzing me about what I was doing, which rather broke the flow.) It had been a strange time to be in London, days before the referendum in 2016. The air was thick with Union Jacks, but Londoners seemed oblivious to the possibility that we would leave, which anyone from the countryside could have warned them was highly likely. In the story, as in recent real life, I was assailed by various ghosts as I strode down Regent Street: past lovers, my little sister, strangers holding placards advertising GOLF SALE somewhere near Carnaby Street. I later spent months writing a whole novel (consigned to the drawer) based on the idea of retracing a single disturbing memory through geography.
I properly encountered the word PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY while on a summer school at Manchester Metropolitan University, where I was briefly a remote student. I was mentally unready for the summer school as I had trouble at home, and as a result I wasn’t able to cope with the hostility I felt emanating from Manchester. Threat seeping from the hot red bricks. A tiring confusion of self-conscious urban cool. (I should make clear, I don’t actually think Manchester is hostile; it was my state of mind. Only the summer before I’d taken one of the happiest late-afternoon bus rides of my life between Victoria and Piccadilly stations, and vowed to return on foot.) In the summer school I sat through classes on writing characters, writing sex scenes, writing dialogue. They barely touched the sides, so locked was I inside my own world of sleep-deprived emotional pain. But one, on place writing, actually made me sit up and take a breath and listen. It was a respite from people, and thinking about people; I’d had enough of them at that point. And that was where I learnt the word to describe what I so often felt: “the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behaviour of individuals“.
Yesterday, after a day of work, it became apparent that we needed to get out. My knees were stiff from sitting. My legs actually felt congested, and I was beginning to take on something of the form of the chair. My partner was out of sorts, perhaps less designed for home working than me. (But then, is anyone? Is anyone really designed that way?) The children weren’t there, and we decided to walk, not knowing quite where to go. We wanted to avoid the middle of Wells, and the constant quiet dancing for space. I had an urge to get up into the hills, so we walked straight up through the deserted secondary school grounds (pausing to look at the Tor in the distance) to the nicest part of town, where the houses are large and the Range Rovers recent.
I’ve lived in this area for nearly twelve years, and he’s been here an awful lot longer than that, but almost immediately we found ourselves on a road I’d never actually walked along before. I knew I’d crossed it higher up (more of which in a moment), but not walked along that actual part. Not breathed its air, nor peered into the gardens and homes that lay along it, nor placed my feet on that precise stretch of tarmac. Already I was happier. I’d begun to despair of ever seeing anything new, or at least, not for an unspecified number of months.
As we left the city behind, with its outsize cathedral and its red scars of half-built housing estates, the Mendips opened up before us. White bursts of blackthorn blossom lined our route, marking where to go for sloes later, if you make gin, and if you can remember. A woman stopped and asked us if we knew the way to a particular house: a lost courier in an unofficial-looking car. Home delivery has taken on a different, wilder tinge. We climbed higher, traversing the fenced-off lip of a whole working quarry I’d never seen before, despite it being within about a mile of my house. I’ve always, in the very many places I’ve called home, prided myself on an intimate knowledge of my surroundings. In that moment, though, I realised I knew nothing. It was exhilarating.
At times I thought I remembered the path. I knew I’d been up there in the dark, with a load of Cubs and their beshorted leaders in November, for outdoor cooking. Intellectually, I knew where I was. I could have pointed to myself without hesitation on an OS map.
We walked past the remains of a brick building, sliced by time to reveal the blackened insides of a chimney. We couldn’t tell what it had been. We were close to Wookey Hole with its paper mills. A wood beckoned, and we found ourselves on a winding path up through stunted trees that was at last new to us both. Violets and wood anemones peeked between dark licks of ivy. “There’ll be a good view when we get there,” he said, over his shoulder. ‘Wherever there is.”
As the woods opened out into light, there was a wire strung between two trees, and then a sheer drop. We stood on the edge of one rock, and looked across a chasm to a similar rockface on the other side. A young man perched on the edge of the opposing cliff, and at first I was worried for him, until I saw he was just smoking there, quite peaceful. We all looked out over the city for a while, and listened to the birds, and then he left, and then we did.
At the foot of the cleft rock faces there was an open patch of ground, grass dotted with burnt circles, and this, I realised, was where we – the Cubs and I, and other assorted adults – had cooked our sausages on sticks. It had been absolutely dark that night, Bonfire Night, and as we’d huddled at the base of the cliffs I’d rarely felt such gratefulness for company, our fires and our numbers fending off whatever might be marauding in the night.
Much later, back home, I remembered the name of the place we’d walked to, that I’d been to before. Split Rock, it is called. The experience reminded me of how, when I was a teenager, I used to enjoy finding “new” bits of Cambridge (a place I thought I knew inside out) in the dark, a little pissed on a Friday night, led by friends on the eternal hunt for a pub not too fussy about ID. The following afternoon, after Saturday work, I’d wander the streets alone and try to find the new places again, in daylight, and reconstruct the scattered evening. It was a magical experience each time: the exquisite jolt of the unfamiliar right there for the taking, in my home town. Each week I sought it anew, like a drug.
This makes me think of how, in this particular moment, we are being forced to discover new bits of our familiar world. We’re seeing it in a way we haven’t seen before. Often it’s unwelcome, somewhat uncanny. Streets empty. Cars gathering a fine layer of sticky dust. Swings at rest. And I wonder if later, when the world has woken, we’ll revisit this place, which will underlay the new incarnation like felt, with wonder and awe. If we’ll trick ourselves into evoking memories of this quiet and frightening time. Or if we’ll simply bury it like trauma.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She likes discovering new places.