Psychogeography: Old Passages and New Tales

There’s something about walking along old streets. The uneven cobble stones beneath your feet force you to think about what kind of person or which type of animal trotted along those very stones one, two, maybe even five hundred years ago. Then there are the old buildings that become your companions as you stroll along, smelling the damp, sweet smell of the past. The effect that these old streets has on individuals can be overwhelming, as they bring out surprising emotions and behaviours. Guy Debord, a French writer, coined the term psychogeography when he wrote about how wandering aimlessly through one’s environment can suddenly produce a new awareness.

I love psychogeography. I love it so much that I wrote my Master’s dissertation about it, so I like to think I know a thing or two – I believe the place in which we live contributes to so much of who we are as individuals. A city’s collective characteristics, such as its parks, residents, local government and unique culture can affect how we perceive the world. And wandering aimlessly around your town is the best way to learn about the things in between the cracks. As much as I love maps, “a map can never accurately capture the lives of those individuals whose journeys it sets out to trace, for, in the process, individuality is inevitably flattened out and reduced to points on a chart.”[1]

So, I went on a walking tour that was taking place in Brighton as part of the Fringe Festival, which covered many of the city’s narrow alleyways. Some of the passages were familiar to me, but most of them were a complete surprise. Brighton has quite a few tiny alleys in The Lanes, which are right at the city centre along the seafront. We ambled up to Brighton’s (supposed) oldest house, which dates back to the 16th Century.

Brighton's (alleged) oldest house in The Lanes

Brighton’s (alleged) oldest house in The Lanes

As you can see, it was a tight squeeze for everyone to get through, and our guide noted that many houses in tight corridors like this one had a larger upstairs floor for extra space. The overhang came in handy when people on the top floor were throwing buckets of human waste out the window and into the gutter. Anyone walking through the lane could duck under the overhang to avoid getting doused with an unpleasant substance.

Another well-known passage in The Lanes is Ship Street Gardens, which is where many traders who catered to docked ships used to live hundreds of years ago. One small house in this alleyway still has one of the old traders’ names – Vaughan – in an Art Nouveau tiled pattern on the front doorstep, a relic of the bustling business this alleyway used to house.

Trader Vaughan

Old tile work in Ship Street Gardens

As we walked deeper and deeper through The Lanes, it became apparent that light was a commodity for many dwellers in this area. The Victorians had a simple, yet ingenious solution: stick a mirror on the outside wall to reflect light back up to the windows. In one smelly and graffiti’d passage, we saw an old Victorian frame that used to house one such reflector.

Light reflection

Victorian light reflector

A slightly less appealing, yet extremely vital invention was the gutter. Before indoor plumbing, it was the only way waste and rubbish was carried away from the houses of these meandering passages. In one particular pathway, we saw two different bricked up gutters from two different time periods. There they were, the hard-working sewers and rubbish bins of their day. (As a side note, the Brighton & Hove rubbish collectors are currently on strike, making me wonder what we might succumb to if it’s not resolved in a few weeks’ time.)

Old gutter line

Two old gutters

During our journey through Brighton’s alleyways, we came across beautiful old houses tucked behind major locations, like this tiny pathway on Camden Terrace, which is just a stone’s throw away from the station.

Camden Terrace

Camden Terrace houses

I’ve scooted through so many tiny passages in Brighton’s centre, but I was still amazed by all of the wonderful nooks and crannies I would have never known existed. Walking past the tiny houses, built hundreds of years ago when sofas were chairs and televisions were books, I connected with my city in a new way. My awareness has shifted, I would say. Maybe I was over-confident; Brighton is, after all, the smallest city in which I’ve lived. With a population of about 270,000, it’s a dwarf in comparison to the millions of people with whom I’ve shared residency in Los Angeles or Berlin. But this city continues to surprise me, and I want to apologise to you, Brighton, for my underestimation. You’re huge in tiny ways and delicate in big ones.

Did I just address my city as if it were a person? I think I did. Guy Debord would be proud.

[1] Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. p. 106. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006.

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