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East End Desire Paths

May 15, 2020
by the gentle author

In spite of the lockdown, the desire paths of the East End are back again this year

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 at this time of year. 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 joggers who run alongside the tarmac path 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 mystery in London Fields.

A dog-eared corner in Stepney.

The beginning of something in Bethnal Green.

22 Responses leave one →
  1. May 15, 2020

    wonderful ! and many more ! the foot goes where the heart leads (& vice versa) : thank you.

  2. May 15, 2020

    I live halfway between the south downs and the sea. Walking on the ancient paths have always made me wonder, who, where,why these have been used. Walking on the beach as the tide go’s out and there are foot prints, washed away by the incoming tide. J

  3. Penny Gardner permalink
    May 15, 2020

    I’m a Londoner who moved to live a mile from the nearest neighbour. I can’t describe what a delight it is to walk on pavement, now and again. It doesnt last tho! Everyone has their ‘Old Straight Track’ (AlfredWatkins)

  4. Marnie Sweet permalink
    May 15, 2020

    5:45 AM in Akron, OH. Sky beginning to lighten but we’re expecting thunderstorms for the next few days. No matter. I’m one of the COVID-19 ‘vulnerable’ so I dare not wander outside. I’d not heard heard the term ‘desire paths’ but reading it and viewing your photos I felt a happy liberation. Re your question, a la Robert Frost, our beloved former National Poet, I would always choose ‘the path less taken.’ Thank you for another unforgettable observation.

  5. May 15, 2020

    I love it that they are called desire paths

  6. May 15, 2020

    Hah! — That dog-eared corner in Stepney was so emphatic!!! “No, mate — you’ve got the placement all wrong… should be right HERE!”. What a lovely Friday reminder that sometimes we really DO know the best way to go……even if it is off the beaten path.
    I so enjoyed the humanity of these photos – they instantly reminded me of childhood, and the fun of exploration and “wandering”. And, stating the obvious, the journey is always better than the destination. These paths make that philosophy “more so”.

    Thank you, GA. You always shine a light.
    Stay safe.

  7. May 15, 2020

    Beautiful “lignes du désir”. I’ve always followed them whenever I had the chance.

  8. May 15, 2020

    Delightful . I shall look with fresh and understanding eyes at what I have at times thought messy and lazy-except when it suited me to take a short cut!
    I hope you are not too constrained by the times. Thank you for your ongoing entertaining and often thought provoking posts.

  9. May 15, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a beautiful reflection on desire paths in the East End. Lovely pictures too. Agree: “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.”

    It puts me in mind of one of America’s favorite poem.

    The Road Not Taken
    Robert Frost – 1874-1963

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

  10. Coralie Mattys permalink
    May 15, 2020

    I love the London Fields one – I’ve often sat on one of those benches and watched the crowds passing by – so many people indeed, that I can see why some have made their own way along the grass verge. I do love a desire path – Power to the People!!

  11. paul loften permalink
    May 15, 2020

    I must confess as to never having heard of desire paths. I have, in the past, been shouted at in various East End parks to “keep off the grass !”, by the park keeper. Thanks to the GA I can now reply with the retort “Desire path ! “

  12. paul loften permalink
    May 15, 2020

    Helen Breen ,
    Thank you for reminding me of this beautifully contemplative poem by Robert Frost. I read it some years ago. Yes, it is one of the best ever and does add to the relevance of today’s blog

  13. May 15, 2020

    Lovely essay and photos. They may be shortcuts – or not- but they give us that wonderful ‘What if?’ feeling

  14. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 15, 2020

    It would be interesting to know if the paths have differed at all in these “unprecedented times”.

    Are they stronger because more people are taking their hour’s exercise? Does the dry weather make them wear more or less than in a rainy spring? Has social distancing made any difference? Is there anywhere where there are two parallel paths two metres apart – perhaps one for coming and one for going??

  15. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    May 15, 2020

    Thank you for this post. Serendipity – at the time I opened it I was reading Antonio Machado’s poem ‘Traveller, your footprints are the only road.’

  16. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    May 15, 2020

    Leaning into this posting! Captions make me smile. Have noticed desire paths branching out all over Horth Hill this spring — not sure whether ramblers are still looking for Harry or whether they’re a means for isolating whilst forest bathing!

  17. May 15, 2020

    Lovely story.. But who wrote it? It reminds me of a poem I read as a Child.

    Little fly thy summers ply. What care if you live or die.. That too was Anonymous!

  18. May 15, 2020

    Oh, thank you Helen from Boston. Sorry to add another message here — but I am so grateful to re-read the Frost poem, after all these years. A volume of Frost poems languishes here in my library, a high school graduation gift from my parents (class of ’65) because my folks knew how MUCH I loved the grand old man of poetry. Yes, you’re exactly right: this is the perfect poem to accompany the fine photos today.

    Thank you GA, and your readers.
    A Spitalfields Life is a consistent, enduring source of optimism — and we need it now.
    Stay safe, all.

  19. May 16, 2020

    George Redgrave is another enthusiast for these desire lines or desire paths. He started a Flickr Group of such photos.

    Which inspired a video: CAMINITO DE DESEO.

    I’ve posted photos on George’s group and now ‘drop-in’ occasionally on his photos here.

    I too am intrigued by desire lines and a fan of walking where the mood takes me.
    But with reservations.

    George I have had a few friendly discussions about this online, as he seems more committed to free walking. Whereas I worry when parts of parks slowly disappear under a merging delta of detours. With grass transformed into packed mud.

    Plus reading about examples of soil erosion caused by water gushing down short gullies – channels made by boots determined to take the most direct route – the short cut.

    Though some people go, literally, out of their way to tread a more difficult and challenging route. As in the video above.

  20. Claire D permalink
    May 16, 2020

    I’m with you entirely GA, there’s something everlasting about footpaths and “desire paths” seem to have an extra wry smile and twinkle in the eye about them.
    “Pointless intervention in Shadwell” particularly appreciated.

  21. Poyntz Pauline permalink
    May 17, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author, are you sure Pilgrim was supposed to stick to the “Straight” path ? I thought it was the “Narrow” path.
    I hadn’t heard the name Desire Path, but it fits beautifully.
    I have, well; had , a reputation for getting lost when out in the countryside because I could not “ stick” to the path. The urge to explore in a certain direction was sometimes so strong.
    I loved getting lost. Bramble bushes , nettles, brooks, fields of cows could sometimes , cause a pause to consider how to manage this or that obstacle but the joy of reaching home again without having to admit defeat was beyond compare.
    Thank you for reminding me of all the Desire paths I have taken throughout my life.

  22. E.G. permalink
    May 19, 2020

    Wonderful concept, “Desire Paths”.
    And a beautiful piece.

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