The geometrical ghosts of field patterns

night gitty

The hedge shake, the last living rose quiver
-PJ Harvey

When I first met my partner Sarah she used a phrase I’d never heard before to describe those numerous marginal paths that criss-cross our grey cities, ‘gitties‘. Defined as ‘a narrow, pedestrian, passageway in a residential area, between high brick walls, wooden fences, hedges, etc.’, it’s thought to originate from Derbyshire. It is a useful word to describe those marginal spaces which lurk in the urban and suburban realm, of those liminal routes which are a contemporary parallel to the ancient desire lines and drovers’ paths. For Sarah these present a superb opportunity to engage in the act of foraging, and our current locale of Lower Earley in Berkshire contains many such sheltered hedge bound pathways. Although Lower Earley is almost entirely composed of modern suburban middle class housing stock the roads lie within the imprint of much older scattered farmlands. As a result the geometrical ghosts of field patterns remain and original country lanes are now preserved as footpaths between the numerous clusters of mock historical residences. With her foraging diary in hand Sarah explores the dense copses and sheltered edgelands woven into the fabric of the Wokingham borough, spying out abandoned orchards, tumbling streams and feral crops. The area is bound by both the river Loddon and the M4 motorway and thanks to the scrub lands and waterways nature retains some degree of complex fertile potency in spite of the encroaching suburban tyranny.

night gitty

Night gitty © Sarah Wainwright

Writer Simon Sellers (of Ballardian note) describes the term edeglands as the ‘interfacial inter-zone between urban and rural, a mix of rubbish tips, superstores, office parks, rough-hewn farmland, gas towers, electricity pylons, wildlife and service stations’ and remarks that the term was ‘coined by the environmentalist Marion Shoard, who has uncovered the hidden dynamics at work in this ‘apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory’. Sellers regards these spaces as a testing ground for the conflict between urbanisation and nature. He observes that this has orchestrated an entirely new relationship, noting that ‘the forgotten nature of the edgelands, and its chaotic, fragmentary character, gives rise to new modes of being that would not have been possible otherwise, a complex, co-dependent ecology and a refuge for many species of plant life, and even startling hybrid flora. These thrive in the mixed-use soil strata deposited by multiple industries, which would not otherwise occur in nature’. The hinterland becomes the focus for the expedition, as foragers and explorers seek out unusual flora scattered amongst the chance topographical fragments.

garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard/ Jack by the Hedge © Sarah Wainwright

The gitties weave like a guerilla arterial system though the bland infrastructure of the city, pollinating and enriching the concrete pathways and paved over gardens of southern England. As such they become a literal river of flowers, mirroring the aims of the River of Flowers organisation who seek to diversify our urban greenery. They state that ‘the ‘river’ in River of Flowers is an evocative way of describing the planting of urban meadows in ‘pollination streams’ or ‘green corridors’ in order to help our pollinators, bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators, find forage in the city. It describes the flight path of the pollinators as much as it does the flow of wild-flowers’. River of Flowers also have a UK wide crowd sourced map of biodiversity hubs with the locations appearing as nodes within a network of organic streams.

IMG_9609

Pathway © Sarah Wainwright

Writers Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley have even penned a book called Edgelands, which is a heartfelt and lyrical ode to the edgelands of their native urban north. In it they fondly recall a misspent youth having ‘built dens in the scrubby urban fringes of Liverpool and Manchester’. They view this space as a poetical tabula rasa, it is a neutral space which only through exploration and inhabitation can rendered as absolute. Here people are free to roam and manufacture their own connections within a landscape of informal pathways that ‘once established…fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner’. Marion Shoard writes of the book ‘It is time for us to consider what relationship we want to see in the long term between our activity in the edgelands, their epic infrastructure, their unique wildlife and industrial archaeology and their peculiar place in our imagination. Other authors will doubtless address these issues, but they will owe much to Farley and Symmons Roberts, the first bards of England’s edgelands‘. This has become a familiar stomping ground in recent years, and of course it has been thoroughly investigated by perambulators such as Iain Sinclair and Nick Papadimitriou. However their work is less concerned with the biological narrative of space and instead attempts to formulate a mythology of the edgeland’s cultural niches, more akin to Kevin Lynch’s notion that ‘a sense of place in itself enhances every human activity that occurs there and encourages the deposit of a memory trace’.

cherry leaf miner

Cherry leaf miner photogram © Sarah Wainwright

This particular edgeland is one of of nature and not industry. Simple pathways run like the bifurcated veins on a glossy leaf, the green anarchy of guerilla planting is intertwined with the hedgerow wisdom of older times. The gitties act as a green lung within suburbia. Root and branch hence becomes a subtle weapon against the brick and tarmac. It’s hard not to return to Richard Mabey and his unofficial countryside of verdant Darwinian exuberance, but instead I shall draw your attention to master forager John Wright (of River Cottage fame) who says of his searching ‘I have a mental map of of exactly where hundreds of different wild foods can be found and a sense of my chances on any particular day’. The exploration is simultaneously a topological and topographical activity (see Nick Dunn and Richard Brook’s excellent book Urban Maps for more on this thinking). This combination of our collective cultural flora with the physical exploration of marginal localities is ultimately what makes the gitty a triumphantly subversive enabler of the duality found within the edgeland realm.

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20 Comments

  1. Great post – I’m always drawn by the edgelands, unconsciously since childhood I think. Nice to hear of gitties too – is this in any way related to ‘genel’ a northern word I first came across in Sheffield?

      1. Hi Matt. Wouldn’t say it was particular to Fife, but a few used throughout Scotland would be ‘close’ ‘wynd’ and ‘vennel’. Have never come across gitties or twittens before. Both lovely words. There is a small ‘close’ near where we live which my daughter refers to as the secret passageway.

  2. I grew up near Lower Earley, and remember the big period of construction on the land and what lay there before. I lived in Woodley which was more interesting though because it still had an abandoned airfield, with factories and warehouses on its edges. I spent a lot of my childhood in that territory, exploring air-raid shelters and wandering through a landscape that was neither park nor wilderness. The old control tower on the site had also been transformed into a night-club, and I spent quite a lot of time there later too!

    Needless to say, this whole territory is now invisible, hidden beneath Lower Earley style housing.

  3. I had twittens in Hastings on a walk I did last year. There are loads of variations regionally. There is a good article in the Common Ground book England in Particular. (only English ones of course – I can’t think of any Welsh ones – a challenge there!) I love the foraging and Sarah’s photos. Foraging walks are very inspiring. Glad you are finding your new area inspiring too!

  4. Hello Matt

    This is fascinating stuff. I’ve read your blog on-and-off for a while, but pleased at last to follow it properly. I grew up in Lincolnshire, where we also spoke of ‘jitties’ (I always imagined it pronounced with a ‘j’, but of course never saw it written down). I wanted to capture some of that sense of the vernacular and the intensely local in a recent post of my own about gateways and field patterns: http://printedland.blogspot.com/2013/02/threshold.html

    With thanks and best wishes

    Ian

    1. Thanks, to be honest I guessed the spelling before I did any research! I love the fact that most regions still have these vernacular phrases for pathways. BTW I loved your post, the ghosts of people passing over the years through those muddy fields are very enthralling.

  5. Wonderful post, and has given me something of a launching pad for a piece I am working on about hedgerows and liminal space. Edinburgh is another great place for this kind of walking and foraging, and (I speak from experience) horse riding, too.

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