Journeys in Performance
Eight walkers assembled behind the train station for the second walk of the day. A smaller group than earlier, but all eager and willing to be misguided by Phil Smith, who had never visited Ayr before. Phil selected three walkers to carry unidentified objects, wrapped in tea towels, and over the course of the afternoon three rocks were revealed. The first was shaped like the sole of a foot and we passed it round the group, weighing it and feeling the smooth texture and the heat generated by previous hands.
We moved inside the station and explored the rich layering of nineteenth century architecture, twentieth century metal work and twenty-first century technology. And strangely, just behind the ticket barrier, was a garden shed. Attentive to anomalies in the environment and hyper-sensitive to the physical and social textures of the spaces we passed through, we departed in a different direction to the trains.
Phil introduced his work on Counter-Tourism and we set off with some of his tactics in mind: ‘intensifying and sharpening (our) perceptions - seeing what’s behind the scenes, what’s just outside the site, what’s just offstage’. Outside the station we noticed a picket fence and a grass verge, which reminded Phil of Dallas and the assassination of JFK. This was a ‘worm-hole’, a portal to another place, and when it had been pointed out we realised that there were many, many other places present in the car park, such as the vehicles manufactured in different continents, and the origin of the petrol in their tanks, which perhaps brought this place closer to Dallas that we had originally realised.
Ascending the steps towards station bridge, we paused to contemplate a patch of ground behind a metal fence (a grid pattern that we would encounter time and time again throughout the afternoon). Some landscaping work had been done here, but it was half-hearted or uncompleted and the place had now been left to grow wild. Hundreds of people must pass by this spot everyday, but it seems unlikely that any of them stop to notice such abandoned, cordoned off areas of the city.
We crossed the bridge to Burns Statue Square (named after the statue, not the man) and here we read the signs and displays of shops and bars, treating the faux-Irish paraphernalia in the window of O’Briens as a genuine museum exhibition. We examined the statue from several angles and attempted to find the exact spot where we could capture his gaze. Tracing the route later on, using Google Street View, I noticed that the face of the statue was blurred out. Impossible to recapture the stare without physically returning. Before moving on, we stood there, reading aloud the names of the Royal Scots Fusiliers who had died fighting in South Africa. Names that had possibly not been spoken for decades.
After following a narrow path between Burns House and the Odeon Cinema, by which two dated buildings maintained a close separation from each other, we paired up and tried out a counter-tourism tactic as one of us closed our eyes while the other led the way back across Station Bridge, lying about the route as we walked. Leading my new friend, Lianne, I turned the Esso garage into a neolithic farm building and the train line into a mountain stream, and later realised that we were actually passing through the old cattle market on our way to the River Ayr. Sometimes truth and fiction are closer than we realise.
We arrived at something like a fenced-off smoking area behind the Market Inn, by the Morrisons car park. A rotten gate lay on the ground next to a plastic chair and two beer crates. Phil offered reflections on the social impact of the smoking ban and the spatial relationships of twenty-first century towns. One of the other walkers emailed me the following day, ‘there were some really amazing moments of seeing the everyday in a new light - who would have thought that observing a smoking pass out at the back of an Ayr pub could become a lesson in anthropology/sociology!’
The fallen gate prompted us to search for other portals and we headed up Holmston Road feeling the textures of the various gates as we walked. At Holmston Primary, we examined the outline of a road junction in the playground, presumably for cycling proficiency training - streets without pavements. Across the road, we passed through the grounds of a public building, speculating about its many histories and uses. Here, we encountered our old friend, the grid. A network of crude lines were marked on the pathway, framing the ground as an area of special interest and guiding routes across it.
Phil had originally planned this route by searching for unusual shapes in the streets and paths via Google Earth. He had been particularly drawn to a bare patch of land to the east of the station. Visiting the site in person on the morning of the walks, it transpired that new flats had been built. This was a clear reminder that space is constantly under construction, an idea developed in Doreen Massey’s influential book, For Space.
From the new buildings of Mill Brae, we wandered down to the River Ayr, following a pathway that traced the route of Holmston Road along to the cemetery. Here we found yet another grid - a wire fence separating the path from an overgrown piece of land, once concreted over but now returning to nature. We spoke of ‘edgelands’, a term coined by the environmentalist Marion Shoard, and adopted more recently by the poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. ‘Edgelands’ are those places where ‘overspill housing estates break into scrubland, wasteland’, the ‘edges’ of ‘underdeveloped, unwatched territories’. This particular edgeland was small and inaccessible, but for now it lacked a clear function and we spent some time examining its hidden details and imagining its story.
We emerged on a grass verge opposite the cemetery. Due to an impending closing time, we remained on the periphery of the site - another counter-tourist strategy. From above, Phil had seen geometric shapes, which he had traced on foot earlier that day. He urged us to return on another occasion to walk them ourselves, noticing the way that different sections of the cemetery are arranged with different patterns, inviting different modes of engagement. And here the walk ended. As we all went our separate ways, Ayr became something else; more familiar, more quotidian, but somehow changed.
Massey, Doreen (2005) For Space, London: SAGE Publications
Smith, Phil (2010) Mythogeography: a guide to walking sideways, Axminster: Triarchy Press
Smith, Phil (2012a) Counter-Tourism: a Pocketbook, 50 Odd Things to do in a Heritage Site (and other places), Axminster: Triarchy Press
Smith, Phil (2012b) Counter-Tourism: the handbook, Axminster: Triarchy Press
Smith, Phil [online] ‘Counter-tourism’, http://countertourism.blogspot.co.uk/p/tactics.html (accessed 28/11/12)
Symmons Roberts, Michael; and Farley, Paul (2012) Edgelands, London: Vintage
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