This is an edited version of a talk given at London’s Design Museum in August 2015.
Five years ago, I got my first smartphone and everything changed. I was in Paris on a day trip and I got lost. But instead of doing what I’d always done – walk around, try to work out where to go by following my instincts while surreptitiously staring at a map upside down and trying not to look like a tourist – I went straight to my phone, clicked on the map app and immediately located myself, right down to the direction I was facing in.
I realised then that I’d never be able to get lost in a city again – or at least, not until I came up with the idea of an experimental social media walk for the Design Museum, in which I would try to get lost through the misguidance of complete strangers on Twitter.
But let me digress a little.
Getting lost is a valuable experience. Your senses are sharpened, you see more and remember more. I’m sure that getting lost sharpens the imagination – some might say that it’s only by getting lost that we can find ourselves, or some such pseudo-psychogeographical bullshit – but my interests are more material. Getting lost is fun. It’s interesting. It’s a great way to explore a city and learn how it is put together.
When I was growing up I was terrified of getting lost in London. When I blogged about my typical Saturday trip as a teenager from the suburbs to London, I was surprised at how repetitive those day trips were, what a narrow furrow I ploughed.
My friends and I were only interested in records, clothes and football fanzines, so we’d get the train to Victoria, then the tube to Covent Garden, walk up Neal Street, along Shaftesbury Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, along Oxford Street, down Berwick Street and back along Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus, stopping at various shops along the way. We did this week after week, never straying from these paths.
The other day, I was watching a TV documentary about the sengi, which is a sort of African elephant shrew, and it talked about how these rodents construct runs for themselves in the long grass. These pathways give them a sense of safety, of security, but they can also become a trap: when predators or bush fires arrive, the sengi can’t escape the routes they know so well.
That’s a bit like how I was in London.
There is a downside to never getting lost: an elephant shrew. Image: Joey Makalintal/Flickr/Creative Commons.
That changed when I moved on to a boat in Lisson Grove and began to explore the surrounding streets, getting more familiar with the way London knitted together and using the towpath as a sort of guide rope like a mountain climber. This was partly a matter of circumstances – I had lots of time and little money, so it was cheap to walk and I could afford to take my time getting anywhere, following whatever route seemed most interesting and appropriate.
This is what first gave me a sense of the scale of the city, and how endlessly fascinating it can be – the domestic architecture, the quirky shops, the street furniture, the plaques to people you’ve never heard of, the sudden squares – but mostly the curious nature of the topography, which is neither gridlike nor quirkily medieval but something in between, with loads of random curves and bends, making it very hard to navigate.
Later, I conducted more ambitious, planned walks. I walked from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, 26 miles along the river, criss-crossing bridges to stay on the Thames Path. I walked the course of the buried Effra from Gipsy Hill to Vauxhall with a dowser, who used a sort of oversized Allen key to trace the path of this ancient river, and in the process got us thoroughly lost in a council estate in Stockwell during a snowstorm.
Most memorably, I walked underground from King’s Cross to Blackfriars following the river Fleet with a pair of urban explorers, who spend their spare time breaking into drains.
In more recent years, opportunities for walks have diminished and I’ve rarely got lost. That’s partly because of the tyranny of the smartphone. With a phone, you always know exactly where you are, and the sugary appeal of the web makes it almost impossible to avoid clicking.
So when the Design Museum got in touch, I began to think about walking and technology and wondered whether the power of the smartphone could be harnessed for good: could I use the phone to help myself got lost?
I stood at a junction on Old Jamaica Road for about ten minutes turning the phone on and off and on and off and on
I conceived the idea of a walk that would be guided by social media. I’d take a starting pointing – which was obviously the Design Museum – and then ask my followers on Twitter where I should go: left, right or straight ahead. Every now and then I’d take a photograph but otherwise I wouldn’t reveal my location until the end.
The results were mixed. Part of the problem was one of integrity. Should I ask people directions at every single junction, or only ones that looked kind of interesting? I soon realised I couldn’t ask at every single junction, as there were so many of them, and some of them just took me straight back to where I’d come from, or to somewhere I already knew, or on to a long straight road with no end in sight. Conversely, sometimes I’d see a really interesting side street which I couldn’t explore because my followers didn’t send me down it.
Another problem was that my phone is quite old, so has a tendency to crash. That meant I stood at a junction on Old Jamaica Road for about ten minutes turning the phone on and off and on and off and on.
The final problem was simply and fairly obviously that staring at a phone while walking, even if this is being done in the service of getting lost, makes it almost impossible to absorb the sights around you and relish the experience it’s all been designed for.
But I did enjoy the interaction with other people – occasionally I’d post a picture and those who recognised it would send me information about the building or street, tell me something interesting about the area, historically or personally. Others talked about doing similar experiments, sometimes in cars, with the passenger telling the driver to turn left or right at random.
And while I didn’t get lost, there were definitely several occasions where I didn’t exactly know where I was, until twitter, rather brilliantly steered me back towards the river, which seemed a fitting place to end. The biggest surprise was that I only covered just over a mile in 45 minutes.
The writer’s Twitter-guided route. Image: Peter Watts/Google.
There are other ways of getting lost or just exploring London in a more chaotic fashion. The members of the London Psychogeographical Association once explored Globe Town in Mile End using an old US Civil War battlefield map. Somebody once attempted to see how far they could travel from Trafalgar Square without ever crossing a road – he managed to go 17 miles before he began walking in circles somewhere in Hackney.
Another acquaintance composed a series of walks that were both complex and rather beautifully simple – he’d walk from the first street beginning with A in the A-Z index to the last beginning with A, then do the same with every other letter in the alphabet.
I also recently discovered a book – Ways To Wander, by Claire Hind and Clare Qualmann, which has a series of ideas about walking from writers and poets. I liked several especially No 26, which is a version of the twitter walk only using a wooden spoon. You take a spoon, throw it in the air, then walk in the direction it points until you hit a wall, when you do it again. Continue for as long as appropriate.
I quite like the lo-fi nature of that. Perhaps that’s the best way to get lost in London. Leave your phone at home, carry a wooden spoon, and wander.
Peter Watts is a journalist who has been writing about London for over 20 years, and a former editor of Time Out’s Big Smoke section. He tweets as @peter_watts.
This article originally appeared on his blog, The Great Wen, and appears here with his permission.