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Desire Paths Of The East End

May 24, 2017
by the gentle author

In Weavers’ Fields

Who can resist the appeal of the path worn solely by footsteps? I was never convinced by John Bunyan’s pilgrim who believed salvation lay in sticking exclusively to the straight path – detours and byways always held greater attraction for me. My experience of life has been that there is more to be discovered by stepping from the tarmac and meandering off down the dusty track, and so I delight in the possibility of liberation offered by these paths which appear year after year, in complete disregard to those official routes laid out by the parks department.

It is commonly believed that the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard invented the notion of “desire paths” (lignes de désir) to describe these pathways eroded by footfall in his book “The Poetics of Space,” in 1958, although, just like the mysterious provenance of these paths themselves, this origin is questioned by others. What is certain is that the green spaces of the East End are scored with them. Sometimes, it is because people would rather cut a corner than walk around a right angle, at other times it is because walkers lack patience with elegantly contrived curved paths when they would prefer to walk in a straight line and occasionally it is because there is simply no other path leading where they want to go.

Resisting any suggestion that these paths are by their nature subversive to authority or indicative of moral decline, I prefer to appreciate them as evidence of  human accommodation, coming into existence where the given paths fail and the multitude of walkers reveal the footpath which best takes them where they need to go. Yet landscape architects and the parks department refuse to be cowed by the collective authority of those who vote with their feet and, from time to time, little fences appear in a vain attempt to redirect pedestrians back on the straight and narrow.

I find a beauty in these desire paths which are expressions of collective will and serve as indicators of the memory of repeated human actions inscribed upon the landscape. They recur like an annual ritual, reiterated over and over like a popular rhyme, and asserting ownership of the space by those who walk across it every day. It would be an indication of the loss of independent thought if desire paths were no longer created and everyone chose to conform to the allotted pathways instead.

You only have to look at a map of the East End to see that former desire paths have been incorporated into the modern road network. The curved line of Broadway Market joins up with Columbia Rd cutting a swathe through the grid of streets, along an ancient drover’s track herding the cattle from London Fields down towards Smithfield Market, and the aptly named Fieldgate St indicates the beginning of what was once a footpath over the fields down to St Dunstan’s when it was the parish church for the whole of Tower Hamlets.

Each desire path tells a story, whether of those who cut a corner hurrying for the tube through Museum Gardens or of those who walk parallel to the tarmac for fear of being hit by cyclists in London Fields or of the strange compromise enacted in Whitechapel Waste where an attempt has been made to incorporate desire paths into the landscape design. I am told that in Denmark landscape architects and planners go out after newly-fallen snow to trace the routes of pedestrians as an indicator of where the paths should be. Yet I do not believe that desire paths are a problem which can be solved because desire paths are not a problem, they are a heartening reminder of the irreducible nature of the human spirit that can never be contained and will always be wandering.

The parting of the ways in Museum Gardens

The allure of the path through the trees

In Bethnal Green, hungry for literature, residents cut across the rose bed to get to the library

A cheeky little short cut

An inviting avenue of plane trees in Weavers’ Fields

A detour in Florida St

A byway in Bethnal Green

Legitimised by mowing in Allen Gardens, Spitalfields

A pointless intervention in Shadwell

Which path would you choose?

Over the hills and faraway in Stepney

The triumph of common sense in Stepney Green

Half-hearted appropriation by landscape architects on Whitechapel Waste

A joggers path in London Fields

A dog-eared corner in Stepney

The beginning of something in Bethnal Green

14 Responses leave one →
  1. May 24, 2017

    Lovely post and a fine example of why to write a blog. A diary is often a laundry list of the day’s doings, but to write a blog one needs to really look at, and pay attention to the world around one’s self.

  2. May 24, 2017

    Nice paths, glad to see there is still so much green left. I had to laugh at the partial fence trying to deter people from using the path. My husband used to call these ‘paths by public referendum’. Valerie

  3. Shawdian permalink
    May 24, 2017

    Our Siamese cats have created their own path on the lawn to the upper part of our garden. There is something appealing about ‘natural paths’ or what I refer to as “Ghost Paths” not knowing when or who decised to take the first steps. These are a lovely set of photos, though I am not too keen on the stoned version in Whitechapel Waste, I prefer au natural. :)

  4. May 24, 2017

    This is a huge subject London has this huge network of paths some are ancient and still used now in a modern guise. Paths provide a vital link most are short cuts also safe ways for people on the move no traffic. In the past some started as paths then developed as track or cart-ways then finally roads. An example is London’s section of Roman Watling Street which has been uncovered by excavation. Samuel Pepys knew all about paths and short cuts he described in his diary, walking across fields to reach Greenwich and his other dock sites. Other times on his duty visits down river he used a Dept navy tender or barge and water taxi. So that made the River Thames a ‘water pathway’ in his time. Nothing has changed the river is still a super highway. Poet John

  5. Orit Friedland permalink
    May 24, 2017

    Dear GA, I love all your stories, but this one is such a perfect gem I just had to comment – the thoughtful text, the wonderful photos and the poignant captions. Thank you for this loving and lovely study of human nature.
    Love, O in TLV.

  6. May 24, 2017

    Dear Gentle Author,
    I love this post. So evocative and thought-provoking.
    I hope you won’t mind that on a course in Found Poetry, I have adapted some of your words, erased others, to create an ‘erasure poem’, trying to catch a little of the the nature of the paths in the form of the poem (I’m not sure if its meandering layout will come across in this comment box though! It should drift across the page quite randomly).

    who can resist
    meandering the dusty track
    of liberation
    those pathways eroded by footfall
    green spaces of the East End
    scored by them
    where the given paths fail
    collective will
    inscribed upon the landscape
    over and over
    like a popular rhyme

    Actually of course, what you’ve written is already a poem, so this is just a small tribute to it.

  7. May 24, 2017

    Wonderful post! In the midst of such beautiful language, I most humbly add the term
    “we” in the US might use for such a path………”the short cut”.

    Toasting the gentle author — who has mastered the art of “noticing”.
    And we are the daily benefactors.
    Most appreciated!

  8. Lucy permalink
    May 24, 2017

    A brilliant post. The human spirit that can never be contained and will always be wandering. Or taking a more practical route.

  9. Adele permalink
    May 24, 2017

    I’ve never heard the description ‘desire path’ before and found this post so appealing. I immediately thought of a desire path I took on way to work for many years, it has set me thinking of the many people who preceded me on this short cut – a lovely subject GA.

  10. T. O. Clark permalink
    May 24, 2017

    I am continually inspired and educated by your daily musings. What a wonderful post.
    Thank you!

  11. Katya permalink
    May 24, 2017

    This prompts me to wonder, rather humorously, whether paths off the path, be they short cuts or deviant routes toward adventure, don’t eventually become byways as pedestrian as those they seek to outwit.

  12. Anne permalink
    May 24, 2017

    Thank you for reminding us, like Robert Frost, of the delight in taking the path “less obvious.” Your photos, a lovely prompting to look out for desire paths along our way…

  13. May 24, 2017

    We do love a wiggle

  14. May 25, 2017

    I love the expression “desire paths/lignes de désir”! It’s the first time I’ve heard it and I intend to use it every chance I get.

    Your posts never fail to enlighten me. Thank you.

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