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East End Desire Paths

July 13, 2022
by the gentle author

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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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Amanda Bush permalink
    July 13, 2022

    In my experience, the parallel track in London Fields came into being as pedestrians sought safety from speeding cyclists.

    I remember reading somewhere that Eisenhower visited a university where a large grassy quad had developed muddy tracks cutting off each corner. The provost apologised for the state of the grass, but Eisenhower asked: “Why not make paths where the students want to walk?”

  2. Barrie Maskell permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Beautifully written.

  3. July 13, 2022

    All humanly apprehensible. The fence in Shadwell, of course, can’t stop anything. The landscape architects of Whitechapel have at least made an attempt. And the “mystery” in London Fields is not one for me: I prefer to walk on green grass too!

    Love & Peace

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Wonderful insight. We are a nation of little rebels.

  5. Bernie permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Thank you, Gentle Author , for giving a name for these very human diversions; I had never before come across it.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    July 13, 2022

    GA, I enjoyed your piece this morning about “Desire Paths” and the “possibility of liberation” that they offer. I think you would agree that American poet Robert Frost expressed a similar sentiment quite well.

    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.

  7. Robin permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Charming. The vagaries of human actions oblivious to any injunction to follow the rules… all delightfully described.

  8. Cherub permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Some lovely little diversions here. It’s nice to be a bit of a rebel at times!

  9. Thirty Bob permalink
    July 13, 2022

    Lovely. My old obsession with desire lines and wear patterns led me to do some research in the early 90s; you’ll be pleased to hear that a GLC guide to landscaping from the 70s or 80s recommended just seeding grass in public areas and then waiting to see where people wanted/needed the paths to be, and then paving and planting appropriately. Maybe someone, somewhere is doing this…

  10. Linda Hird permalink
    July 14, 2022

    Love these……since childhood I’ve always used these paths…..the shortest distance between two points. Rebellious?

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