“Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.”

Unwelcoming: an empty street at night. Image: Pixabay.

Earlier this year, a boy hit me on the street near my house.

He didn’t hit me hard. But he still hit me. He still hit me.

No man has ever hit me before.

About a month before this incident, a man tried to follow me home.

I was walking across a bridge that separates central Bristol from my neighbourhood, when he started running behind me and shouting to me. There was no one around. I kept walking across the bridge, towards the crossing which had just changed to a Red Man.

Please let there be no traffic, I kept whispering to myself. Please let there be no traffic.

If there was traffic, I’d have to stop, and he would catch me. If there was traffic, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

I got across the road and the traffic stopped him. Without thinking, I turned from my normal route home across the quiet churchyard and down a quiet street to walk down the busy road and through the brightly lit supermarket. It takes longer this way, but like women all around the world I told myself I’d be safer where the lights are brighter. I told myself this, even though a few weeks earlier a drunk man had shouted obscenities at me in the place I now reached out to as some kind of brightly coloured, muzack-ed sanctuary.

After the supermarket, I walked on the main road with its street lamps and its pubs and its neon shop fronts.

It was on that street where, a few weeks later, the boy hit me.

I could tell you all the things I told myself, the answers to the questions you get asked when a boy or a man hits you on the street. It wasn’t late. It was about 9.20pm. I wasn’t drunk. (He was. He was very, very drunk.) I was wearing… I can’t remember, probably jeans. My leather jacket.

I was walking home the safe way, the main street way, the street-lit way, and a group of drunk teenagers approached me, jeering, and the largest boy swung his arm and hit me across the face, the side of his hand knocking against my glasses.

I shouted at them. I was proud of myself for that.

The next day I had to go back down the street to the supermarket. A man bowled out of a pub doorway and crashed into me, swore at me for being in his way.

I burst into tears.


For weeks afterwards, I had a changed attitude towards my city. I approached walking home with a heightened sense of fear – a level of fear I’d perhaps naively not had before. When friends peeled off from the street on our way home from the pub, I faced the rest of the walk home with my heart pounding. For the first time, I carried my keys sticking out of my knuckles, Wolverine style. I was pathetically grateful when a friend lied – saying he fancied a stroll and walked home via my flat. I hung around the cab rank with groups of women friends, glad to have people to share a taxi home with.

I’m not alone with that fear, or with the decision to change my behaviour to manage my fear. Half of 42,000 European women responded to a survey saying they restricted their freedom of movement to avoid gender-based violence. Women everywhere have learned to develop a hard stare, to carry their keys in their fists, to pretend to talk on a silent phone.

In our desire to keep ourselves safe, women walk fewer steps than men, research shared in the Guardian last week suggested. Weighing up our risks of being on the street, we are more likely to catch buses or get taxis home over short distances. Fear not only changes our behaviour on the streets, it costs us money and harms our physical health.

It’s six months since a boy hit me on the street, and on Thursday I’m convening a panel called ‘What if women built cities?for Bristol’s Festival of Future Cities. How would we build cities, to make them safer places for women? To make them places where women aren’t forced into cabs, aren’t forced to tentatively ask for an escort home, don’t weigh up whether it’s too late to take the shortcut through the churchyard, don’t nervously eye the clock and think we should probably leave, now, before it’s too late?

After all, if we walk home on our own past a certain hour, and something happens to us, then we know the first question we’ll be asked is:  Why were you walking home on your own anyway?

There are practical things I can think of to build safer cities for women: more street lights, more public toilets with female attendants. Wider pavements, especially outside bars where groups of drinking men congregate with cigarettes. We could have more and better policing at taxi ranks, and the recent London Uber decision shows we need improved regulation of these services. There’s the need to build more social housing – women are the hidden face of our homelessness crisis, trapped behind B&B and hotel room doors.

But fundamentally, we need to build a different society.

In her book, Radical Feminism, my fellow panellist Dr Finn Mackay interviewed women about their experiences on ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches. Many responded to say how it felt like they were ‘trespassing’ when they marched – that the act of taking up public space felt revolutionary and transgressive. Their responses show how much women internalise and put up with the feeling that the streets aren’t for us.

When men choose to shout, harass, follow, even abuse us on the streets, they are asserting male entitlement and power. This is our space, their actions say. And you are not supposed to be here. If you are here, then you need to be ready for us to judge, mock, threaten, attack you. If you don’t want to be judged, mocked, threatened or attacked then go home. Get back in the domestic sphere, where you belong.

To build cities for women, we need first to build a society that respects women. We need to build a society where a woman can walk home at any time of the day or night, taking any route she chooses, without being made to feel afraid. We need a society where women aren’t quizzed about those choices, when the worst happens and men attack us.

We need a society where women see public space as for them, in the same way men do.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.  

 
 
 
 

Why exactly do Britain’s rail services to the cities of the South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.

In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precari


ous. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.