Anthropological study of walking in the South Downs


This webpage will be an ethnographic exploration of the ‘Anthropology of the landscape, walking and the senses.’ During a two day walking trip around Sussex’s South Downs I was able to explore many aspects of walking, the countryside and the senses, all of which are areas of anthropology that I previously had not either studied or even considered. The South Downs surround Sussex campus, and therefore when living in halls I would awake every morning to the view of surrounding hills. Nevertheless I never had the chance to really explore and experience the area and therefore this choice of trip seemed to be the perfect opportunity. Within this webpage with the use of both my own ethnographic notes and the work of other Anthropologists, I will explore a variety of thoughts and findings that the trip produced for me, with a focus on exploring how a feeling of serenity is created through the interaction of our senses and the body whilst walking in the countryside.

Figure 1. Map marking our starting point of campus and the youth hostel

Figure 1. Map marking our starting point of campus and the youth hostel

In late 2013 Britain rose to 20th in a list of the top 50 most beautiful countries on the planet, its highest ranking on record, which is no doubt down to the conservation of countryside landscapes such as that of the South Downs. The countryside has a long history within Britain, and in the 21st century the idea of a free and natural countryside has been exaggerated, now more than ever, by the juxtaposing busy and manmade urban city. The ideas surrounding the countryside as a form of escapism emerged after access to transport in the 18th and 19th centuries became more available and therefore walking became an alternative and more enjoyable way to travel (Edensor, 2000). Before this period walking had always been associated with poverty, homelessness and criminality, however this stereotype slowly diminished over time and it developed into a pleasant past time rather than some sort of punishment for being of a lower class. This positive view of walking and the countryside itself, was reinforced during periods of war where the countryside was used as a tool on postcards to encourage boys and men to join the army to fight for their country (and countryside!). This reinforces Matless’s (1998) belief that the landscape and sense of Englishness are very much intertwined as the countryside in England is part of both the history of the country and is hence part of many people’s memories. Being bought up in England I have continually been surrounded by these stigmas of the countryside and the landscape and therefore I think that it is important to recognise that I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has lived in London all their life, and therefore there is a cultural romanticism attached to my findings.

'Your Britain fight for it now' postcard campaign

Figure 2.’Your Britain fight for it now’ postcard campaign

The key way in which we are able to experience the true nature of a landscape whilst walking, is through our senses. Within our society vision and sound are often seen as being more important than our other senses, mainly that of touch (Ingold, 2004). I personally think that I place a lot more importance on sight than I do sound in my everyday life, as as Goffman (1971, cited in Ingold 2004, p.331 ) says vision is imperative, and I therefore decided that on the trip to try and focus on what I heard around me and how this then had an impact on how I felt. I found that by taking part in an exercise where we walked one by one in a field, focusing on one sense at a time it allowed me to focus more and really think about each sense individually and not be distracted by other people. Whilst walking as a large group, where everyone is talking you don’t get a chance to really think about the sounds of the landscape and therefore when walking in silence and tuning in with the surrounding sounds I found that this small freeing of the mind and focusing on just one sense created a feeling of serenity. During this exercise I was able to hear a range of sounds that are often highly related to the countryside; birds, wind, footsteps, a tractor in the distance. I then found that these sounds began to merge together and form a sort of rhythm that encompassed what I usually think of as the general ‘sounds of the English countryside’. I found that when wanting to discover more on this topic of sound in an ethnographic sense that it is not an aspect of anthropology that is explored a lot, however there are anthropologists that are looking more towards sound as a different form of ethnography (Feld and Brenneis, 2008)

One interesting idea surrounding walking and the senses, is the interaction between body and mind and during the trip I began to notice the importance of this relationship. I found that if my mind began to wonder I became less aware of the changing landscape around me. Therefore in order to feel really within the landscape I needed my body and mind to be in synchronization so that I was aware of the way my body was moving through the landscape and how this consequently affected my mind. As Lund (2005, p.28) said “In order to understand how the eyes perceive the surroundings it has to be examined in relation to the moving body and how it moves”. This quotation from Lund shows how the mind and body must work together as one holistic entity in order for us to truly understand and engage with our surroundings. This is in contrast to the previously held view that sensory experience was very two dimensional, with the body and mind being separated from one another (Pink, 2009). Within the context of walking it is impossible to see the body and mind as two separate entities as how the body moves whilst walking, the relationship between our own minds and the physical world changes. This interaction of body and mind therefore shapes and reshaped the landscape over time and therefore there are personalized trails through landscape.

During the two days of walking in the South Downs, I began to feel a sense of serenity and peacefulness. Coming from Brighton where there were so many stresses of university and work, being able to escape this allowed me to concentrate on nothing other than experiencing the landscape around me. This feeling of escape and relief that I felt leads me to agree with Wainwright (1969, cited in Edensor 2000, p.84) who states the English countryside is seen as a cure for urban depression! I think this feeling of serenity come from cultural notions of the countryside being a place where we can get back to nature, and not be surrounded by manmade construction. This is exemplified in Anderson’s (2004) work on Evans (1998, cited in Anderson 2004, p.205) notion of bimbling; walking around aimlessly. Anderson uses the example of environmental activists who often do this ‘bimbling’ to get away from a protest site and this then allows them to reconnect with the environment which they are trying to protect, similarly to the way as anthropologists we went immersed ourselves in the landscape which we wanted to study. Olafsdottir’s (2013) ethnographic exploration of British walkers on a trekking holiday in Iceland exemplifies how even in the context of Icelandic ‘countryside’ this stigma of getting away and ‘forgetting your trouble’ is still very much present. However after the trip I began to question how much this feeling of serenity did I actually feel and how much did I think I had to feel? There is an obvious social stigma attached to the countryside and I began to think about how my preconceptions of how I should feel whilst walking then affected how I did feel.

In conclusion the British countryside is a key part of British history and my own experience of the two days in the South Downs highlighted why this is so. Through interacting with the landscape around me through my senses I was able to grasp how the countryside acts as Alder says; (1989, cited in Edensor 2000, p.81) a vantage point from which to grasp and understand life. The fieldtrip taught me that this feeling of serenity that I felt was due to the interaction between my senses and also my body and the way that I was interacting with the landscape around me. From an ethnographic perspective the trip allowed me to think more like an anthropologist, in an environment that may not always be thought of as typically Anthropological due to the lack of other people! However I think that studies such as that of the landscape, walking and the senses have the capacity to open eyes within Anthropology, and it did to me to a subject within Anthropology that currently is not always considered; considering your own body as an anthropological subject in its reaction to the world around it.

Bibliography

Anderson, J., (2009), ‘Talking whilst walking: a geographical archaeology of knowledge’, Area, 36(3), p.254–261, [Online] DOI: 10.1111/j.0004-0894.2004.00222.x, (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Edensor,T., (2000), ‘Walking in the British countryside: reflexivity, embodied practices and ways to escape’, Body and Society, 6, p.81-106, [Online] DOI: 10.1177/1357034X00006003005, (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Feld, S and Brennies, D., (2008), ‘Doing anthropology in sound’, American Ethnologist, 31(4),  p.461–474, [Online] DOI: 10.1525/ae.2004.31.4.461, (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Hawkes, S., (2013) ‘In the eyes of the world, Britain’s countryside is more lovely than ever’, Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/outdoors/10452866/In-the-eyes-of-the-world-Britains-countryside-is-more-lovely-than-ever.html (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Ingold, T., (2009), ‘Culture on the ground: the world perceived through the feet’, Journal of material culture, 9(3), pp. 315-340, [Online] DOI: 10.1177/1359183504046896 (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Lund, K., (2005), ‘Seeing in motion and the touching eye: walking over Scotland’s mountains’, ed. Bendix, R., and Brenneis, D., The senses, Lit Verlag: Amsterdam, p.27-42

Matless, D., (1998) Landscape and Englishness (Picturing History), Reaktion Books: London

Olafsdottir, G., (2013), ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to get away: on trekking holidays and their therapeutic effect’, Tourist Studies, 13(2), pp.209-231, [Online] DOI: 10.1177/1468797613490379 (Accessed: 3rd May 2014)

Pink, S., (2009), ‘Principles for sensory ethnography: perception, place, knowing, memory and imagination’, Doing sensory ethnography, SAGE Publications: London, p.23-43

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20263

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