‘I’m Trying To Walk Through Hull In My Mind’: Walking As A Historical Methodology

 

“I’m trying to walk through Hull in my mind and think, where would we have gone and been?”

This is how one of our research participants described narrating her life story in a recent oral history interview. We were sat at her dining table, in her home a few miles outside Hull, but as she talked to me she walked around the city in her mind, coming across shops, cultural venues, restaurants, and public spaces that have played a part in her life over the past five decades. Other interviewees have similarly taken mental journeys around the city as they’ve recalled their lives to me, prompting interesting questions about how individual subjectivities and collective identities are spatially and geographically constructed. But I’ve also been thinking about what happens when we actually walk around the city with research participants too. How can walking be a useful methodology for historians seeking to better understand relationship between people, memory, and place?

If you’ve been reading our blog posts over the last few months, you’ll know already that walking took on a really important role in the early stages of our project. Back in November, we wrote about walking around the city centre with a group of volunteers as part of our first workshop with the Hull History Centre, and the different things we learned about Hull along the way. Since then, we’ve increasingly integrated walking into our research design process, and thought more deeply about developing ‘walking workshops’ as a methodological practice in History. Walking is more commonly used as a research tool in disciplines including ethnography, geography, literary and performance studies – but it remains a pretty unusual practice in historical research. We said at the start of our project that we wanted to collaborate with our participants as much as possible, letting them lead the way in what we interrogate and explore, and how we do it. The rich insights created by ‘chatty walks’ with our participants have shown us new creative ways for, quite literally, letting our participants ‘lead the way’. They’ve also shown us that ‘walking workshops’ hold so much potential for histories of post-war places and urban identities.

Recent decades have seen plenty of theorisation of walking and its importance to place and place-making. It seems impossible to write about walking without at least some reference to Michel de Certeau’s ‘practitioners of the city’ – ordinary people who give meaning and value to different spaces and routes as they move around the urban landscape, emphasising, ‘enunciating’, and even transforming the world around them.[1] For de Certeau, walking is not just a way of travelling through, or experiencing a place, but also a performative act that makes a place what it is.

Rebecca Solnit has written compellingly about the power of walking too, as something that not only brings you into contact with a given environment, but gives you space for reflection and deep thinking: ‘The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts…It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile’.[2] In other words, for Solnit, walking is a thinking tool as well as means of travel. Walking is the closest thing to doing nothing, she argues, and this is a thought I return to often. In my own previous work, I’ve written about walking as a valuable tool for taking historical research beyond the university. Now, in this new project, I have come back to it as a tool for actually making that history, rather than just sharing it.

Here in Hull, walking has helped us to open up conversations that engage with (but are not necessarily limited to) ideas about place and space. Physically being in the urban landscape quite naturally prompts conversation about it, whether place becomes the main topic of the conversation, or places are used as prompts and frameworks for other subjects. By walking and talking with our research participants, we’ve been able to explore stories of both specific locations (such as Hessle Road, the Prospect Centre, or Bob Carver’s Fish and Chip Shop) and broader ideas of place, of what Hull is like and what it means to live in the city. And these discussions have included places that still exist, but also ones that have changed or disappeared altogether. We’ve seen that walking through urban space prompts reflection and conversation about continuity and change, as people focus their attention on how the landscape around them has altered or transformed during their own time in Hull, and sometimes beyond. We’re certainly not the first to do this sort of work in the city – in the early 2000s, Resound Community Partnership used ‘soundwalks’ (audio trails that people followed, made up of routes and soundscapes that included recordings of people’s local memories) to explore the impact of urban redevelopment on local people. More than fifteen years later, we’re applying somewhat similar techniques to investigate heritage and identity during a different moment of significant change for Hull.

Walking has also helped us put people at the centre of the historical narratives we’re exploring, because the embodied experience of walking through an urban landscape often emphasises the individual and their perspectives. All of our participants have been locals, who have walked the areas we have been exploring many times (usually much more than we have ourselves), and as a result they bring their own memories and personal stories to each walk. As we’ve walked around streets and public spaces with our participants, they have become collaborators and co-creators, integrating the corner shops, bus stops, homes, meeting points, local stories, and even mythologies, that make each place what it is. Sometimes these places have been expected, but often people bring up locations, narratives, and themes that we haven’t yet considered. In both cases it has been easier to put emphasis on individuals and their personal connections to place when we have physically positioned ourselves amongst the built environment itself, and moved around it. In doing so we’ve found that we can move closer to experiencing the city through the eyes (and bodies) of our participants. We focus on listening, empathising, and understanding, rather than simply representing our own version of Hull’s history.

Leading on from that, this emphasis on the individual and their perspective has gone some way to challenging established hierarchies of heritage in our work. In our project we want to know what the dominant threads of Hull’s heritage discourses are, to trace where they come from, and investigate how they’ve been developed and sustained – but we also want to move past assumptions and narrow definitions of Hull’s history to understand place identity from the ground up. Walking has allowed us to do that, to question, with our participants, what history and heritage means in the city. For example, on a recent walk around the areas of Hessle Road and Boulevard, our participants were able to show us locations relating to the fishing industry, including the former home of Lillian Bilocca (which at the time was about to be commemorated with a new Blue Plaque), but also their own homes and favourite cafes as we passed them. We talked about nights out at the ‘Beanie Disco’ and they showed me where they used to go to school, as well as talking about more established stories of ‘Dead Bod’ and the ‘Triple Trawler Tragedy’. Undeniably, the walks that we take still set geographical and sometimes thematic parameters for our explorations, and the power dynamics of each walk are shaped by who leads the route and what is discussed on it (in our November workshops, we delivered informal-but-guided walking tours in the city centre, whereas by February, our walks had become entirely participant-led). Nonetheless, walking has opened up space for discussions of hyper-local and vernacular heritage, as well as reflections on what counts as ‘history’.

Hull perhaps provides particularly fertile ground for walking as a historical methodology. It is a city that seemingly, loves to walk. Often described as a ‘city of trails’, the longevity of the Seven Seas Fish Trail (celebrating its 30th birthday this year), the constant trickle of new walks and tours (including this tour exploring ‘Hull Firsts’, written by one our participants), and even the continued popularity of Charlotte’s own Hull Blitz Trail, four years after its planned end point, show us that Hull is a city that seizes opportunities to explore its heritage by traversing the urban landscape on foot. Maybe this is because of the size and geography of the city, just small enough that its centre can be reasonably explored in an hour or two of walking? Or maybe Hull enjoys a unique culture of heritage walks, tours, and trails that is more complexly related to its own sense of space and place? We’re not sure why this is (at least not yet), and we haven’t done the maths on whether the city truly does enjoy more trails than others (although we’d love to know if and why you think Hull is a ‘city of trails’). But we certainly do think this is a methodology that can be utilised to understand heritage, identity, and space across a range of different cities and places.

Of course, it’s not always possible to explore a place on foot. It is important to recognise that ‘walking’ in itself is a limited term, that excludes different ways that pedestrians move around urban landscapes and often overlooks the fact that lots of people can’t walk around the city. Not all landscapes can be explored on foot, and sometimes, even if they can, sitting down with participants in a warm, comfortable space is more suitable. We surely need a better, more inclusive, way of describing what we mean when we talk about walking (because do we really just mean people who are travelling on foot?), and it’s clear that we also need to better understand how different ways of moving around a city affect the conversations had, and the understandings that are produced as a result. In our more traditional workshops, we’ve used custom-made maps and historic images to get as close as possible to ‘imaginary walking’, and we’ve looked to host these workshops in local community settings, where the streets, neighbourhoods and homes that we discuss are right on our doorsteps. As we move forwards into our oral history interviews, this sort of more imaginary engagement with place will become increasingly central to our explorations of space, place, and subjectivity. More and more people will walk through Hull in their minds in an exercise of mental geography. Nevertheless, as Solnit notes, ‘exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains’.

[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 2011, Chapter Seven: Walking in the City.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2014.

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