Run Don’t Walk – Roots, Routes, Routines
A run in Hilly Fields SE13
Wednesday morning, 31 October
The summit of Hilly Fields is 53 metres above sea level and has good views of the surrounding area. This open space was threatened by housing development in the 1880s but was saved as a park by a group of influential people including Octavia Hill, who was one of the founders of the National Trust. In the early 1900s the park was used as a meeting place for the Suffragettes. (1)
This is a very familiar route – two minutes uphill from where I live in Ladywell SE13, and an area I regularly walk, cycle or, as I did on Wednesday, run (the images were taken later).
I was interested in documenting that Monday’s storm damage. The trees that have been uprooted or damaged are situated in an arc at the highpoint of the hill. What I find interesting in these images is a certain calm after the storm quality – the fact that these trees – I’m not an expert but some very old – have had the life ripped out of them in a matter of seconds. A few minutes away down the hill and still to be made out faintly in white paint lettering is the direction ‘SHELTER FOR 700’. This palimpsestic reminder of the fragility of life – respectfully pristine – has its echo in the stormy aftermath of St Jude.
There is an elderly man (not pictured here) one of that generation who sheltered in such places of greater safety who I regularly see sitting in a mobility vehicle by a main footpath on Hilly Fields. I have never uttered more than a few words of greeting (always cheerfully returned) but I imagine his connectedness to this area, the family and friends around him, and the fact that he always seems to be alone (perhaps he is a widower). He was there today, smiling as always, a magnet for joggers, strollers and young children let off the leash by watchful parents.
… for the more immediate neighbourhoods of Brockley and Lewisham, although comparatively open at present, must ere long be covered with building to accommodate the ever increasing population of this mighty London. Moreover, the character of the Hilly Fields gives a wide range to their influence upon the health of the metropolis. It has long been recognised that it is especially important to keep the hilltops round London free from buildings, so that the purity of the air blowing in from the country may thus be preserved….” (2)
As I jog-trotted around the park on Wednesday morning -part of a route / routine that also takes in nearby Ladywell Fields – I reflected on what I imagine are his strong ties to this place and the fragility that comes with old age. We (the regular park users) take this presence for granted but one morning, perhaps after weeks of not being in his usual place at the summit, it will occur to us that he will not be returning. Such taken-for-grantedness extends itself of course to our everyday environments. The park provides its users with the purity of air referred to in the Council archives as well as a respite from every day pressures but few know anything of its political significance (why do open spaces feature so often as key sites for popular agitation?) or how close it was to being built on as part of late nineteenth century urban expansionism. A parallel: the trees taken in the night and early morning have survived the buffetings of other storms but for some meteorological quirk of fate not this one.
I am struck too, by how the people I saw in the park on this morning seemed to be relating to the change in the park’s topography – some with seemingly complete indifference, others keen to pose like big game hunters to snap shoot trophies for that day’s must-have instagrammed moment. The damage caused by this storm is of course insignificant in relation to a traumatic past where civilians sought safety in numbers from what fell from the sky. There is perhaps a mythologized Keep Calm … stoicism engrained in the collective memory about that time, one that is made up of images of civilians and rescue workers navigating the glass and masonry of smashed streets to go about their business in the cold morning light following a Luftwaffe raid. The commercial appropriation of a motivational propaganda slogan might strike us as trite or tasteless but I can’t help but think of it (like a maddening tune that I can’t rid from the playlist in my head as I complete my hilly circuits) as somewhat appropriate to this time and this place.
Screen grab from http://bombsight.org/#16/51.4591/-0.0201/Screen grab of GPS download of my run
(2) From: Dedication to the public of Hilly Fields, Brockley by Sir Arthur Arnold, Chairman of the Council on Saturday, 16th May 1896” Lewisham Local Studies Archives 352.944 BRO