A dérive: An account of a walk unintentionally inspired by Debord and the Situationists.

London is filled with history and it is a rather undeniable fact that the best way to see or experience any of it is on foot. Through the physical act of walking one can pretty much discover a London that is not accessible by any other means. After learning about the situationists, psychogeography, the flaneur, night walking etc, I had begun to understand that there many ways to walk and how to undertake a walk for this assignment. I initially decided that I would roughly plan where I would walk in the theatre district in order to understand more about the history of theatre. That, however, is not what happened once I set off;

 

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Captured on the MapMyWalk app

 

As you can see from my route, I undertook a walk that unconsciously resembled a , a technique and practice discussed by Guy Debord and the Situationists.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there

Suddenly I found that I was not walking with a specific purpose but neither was I meandering with ‘pure unconscious desire that characterised the surrealist wanderings’.(Coverley, 2010, p.96)  I took the approach of walking without a planned route and let myself be drawn to points of interest. I should also note, that in hindsight, by walking with a friend, I had followed Debord theoretical concerns about the dérive of conducting my walk with two or three people. This resulted in a walk where we were distracted enough by each others company, making it more random. Debord also discussed that the dérive as being more of a ‘psychogeographical investigation and is expected to return home having noted the ways in which the areas transversed, resonate with particular moods and ambiances.’ (Coverley, 2010, p.96) 

Now, I am aware that I have not commented upon ‘particular moods and ambiances’ but did roughly note what I observed and the places I went; 

Starting at Piccadilly circus, we walked down Regent St, St James No1 where a foundation stone had been erected;

This was a plaque erected to mark the location of British Columbia House, which was built in 1914 as the premise of the Agent-General of British Columbia. Although it is a commercial building now, it held importance as a building that represented a part of Britain’s colonial influence around the world around the turn of the century, a history that became more apparent as I continued my walk.

We then stumbled upon the Royal Opera Arcade on Charles Street;

This shopping arcade was completed in 1818 making it the world’s oldest shopping arcade. Designed by John Nash, a prolific regency architect, who also designed other famous London landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. As seen from the photo I took, it was undergoing some maintenance work so I was unable to explore it in greater detail but from these paintings of it’s sister, The Burlington Arcade (1819) also designed by Nash, it is clear that the design developed into the modern day shopping mall.

 

The design shows the importance of shop frontage and the antithesis of being neither inside or outside was ahead of it’s time and revolutionary in the history of shopping and commercialism. From this image you can see women out walking the shopping arcade, given women a legitimate reason to be out walking, something we have been exploring in our seminars. 

Moving on around to Haymarket and along Pall Mall  we came upon the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo place. This was my first encounter of a memorial statue on my walk, one of many that are placed around central London and a significant part of British history and culture.

Designed by John Bell, and unveiled in April 1861 the memorial commemorates those 2162 soldiers who fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856). Many war memorials have been erected around London, not just for those fallen in wars but also of those tragically lost in other tragic circumstances. What is apparent is the need remember and commemorate within London’s landscape and how it is an integral part of British identity.

Looming in the sunlight was the Duke of York column as I turned my back to the War memorial;

Once we spotted this I was reminded of ‘The Grand Ol-Duke of York’ nursery rhyme which we sung as I took photos and took in its scale and size, which monumental when standing directly under it. Noticing a door, pictured here;

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I was curious to know whether it was more than just a series of cylindrical concrete blocks and discovered that there is a staircase inside that leads to a viewing platform at the top, closed to the public for obvious safety and conservation reasons. It was completed in 1834 to commemorate Prince Fredrick, son of King George III for his success in the French Revolutionary Wars.

Coming up to horse guard parade we then spotted a silver jubilee walkway marker on the ground, another form of walking but with a particular purpose. What was becoming evident on our walk was the importance of memorials, from statues, to monuments, to walking routes, and monuments.

The walkway itself is 15 miles long and includes some of the cities most famous landmarks, and thus a popular tourist route with a certificate to download on the TFL website once the route is completed. Laid out by 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it is one of many self-guided memorial walks within London that allow people to walk freely around London but by following a loose route. Another famous walk is the Princess Diana Memorial Walk in Hyde Park.

As we came upon Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery, the lions, and the fountains, the number of tourists increased quite dramatically. I could write so much about these famous and highly researched buildings but something interesting we noticed on our walk up through Trafalgar Square was the gendered symbols that had replaced the walking green man on the traffic lights. These had been placed there for this year’s Pride March and celebrations and have been there ever since, making me delve deeper into the history of Pride itself;

The first official UK Gay Pride Rally was held in London on 1 July 1972. This date as chosen as the nearest Saturday to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969. These were violent demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village. The aim of the march was to raise the visibility of the gay community, which at the time was a radical concept.”

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/%22Gays_Against_Fascism%22_-_First_Gay_Pride_March.jpg

 

Walking up through to Covent Garden we wandered and doubled back on ourselves coming across a little alleyway on Rose Street that cut through to Lazenby Court where we discovered the Lamb and Flag, and signs for a saloon bar with an intriguing sign hung on the roof of the alleyway that spoke of Charles Dicken and Samuel Butler. We would not have noticed this had we been following any planned or popular route.

There first mention of a pub in 1771 when it was then named the Lamb and Flag in 1833 and was originally built in 1638. It has been renowned for staging bare-knuckle fighting and the alleyway we walked down was the site of the attack upon John Dryden in 1679 by the thugs hired by John Wilmot whom had been involved in a long-standing feud – something I closely studied in a Restoration literature module I took last year. As you can read from the sign, it was proclaimed that it was one of Charles Dickens’s regular haunts, and the pub has been included as the last stop on a walk where you can ‘get drunk with Dickens’. This follows on from the discussions we have undergone that single Dickens out as a prolific writer of London who worked mainly on foot, and the importance of finding a site like this adds to the images of him walking around London to inspire his writing. 

Walking further we came upon the more commercialised area of London where the Christmas shopping fever was strong, therefore I was unable to document much of this part of the walk as we tried to escape the madness. The next point of interest was up Greek Street in Soho as we then moved into Soho Square where we concluded our walk, after an hour and eighteen minutes of walking.

What we came across in Soho Square was a House of Charity, now proclaimed as St Barnabas House, a charity now for the homeless but holds a significantly long history.

The square itself was built in 1679 by Richard Frith and Willian Pym. Initially, it was a coach house and stables that catered to the aristocrats who lived in the Restoration House. In 1746 the house was then rebuilt by the bricklayer, Joseph Pearce and the plumber, George Pearce in the Georgian style that has had little alterations since. In 1811 the building relinquished its status as a private house and then became the site of Westminster Commissioners of Sewers offices.

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http://www.british-history.ac.uk/sites/default/files/publications/pubid-295/images/figure0295-078-a.jpg

Much like The Lamb and Flag, the site became a site visited by Dickens and was thus featured in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. In 1862 the building was purchased by the charity, House of St Barnabas, to become a pioneering homeless charity. Moving into the 21st century the house was no longer able to functions as a place of refuge and ceased to be a hostel in 2005, with the House becoming a social enterprise.

As we concluded our dérive in Soho and went to go warm up, it was hard to stop looking up and around where we were walking, continuing to discover more and more about areas of London. The city is so steeped in history that there does not even need to be a planned route to discover so much about this multicultural and vibrant city. We moved through 100s of years worth of history that was only possible on foot and with no specific purpose and destination in mind. Ultimately I do believe Guy Debord’s theories were onto something and we can discover so much just through the act of walking and although we were walking to discover history it felt like I understood more about the time these places were built and what their purpose is, was or has been transformed into.

Sources not hyperlinked;

Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2010), chap. 3, ‘Guy Debord and the Situationist International’, pp. 81-110

 

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