“It’s always a surprise, walking along a busy street, to find a gap in the shiny advertising hoardings or a bent-back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a view on to an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer, or the archaeological earthworks of new building work where foundations are being laid.

The city – suddenly – has a new scale; an underness and overness – and the eye is overwhelmed.

The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communion with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.”

An edited extract from “Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness” published by Jonathan Cape

 “The zone goes by different names, few of them complimentary. Victor Hugo called it “bastard countryside”. The landscape theorist Alan Berger called it “drosscape”. The artist Philip Guston called it “crapola”. And the environmentalist Marion Shoard called it “edgeland”, which she defined as “the interfacial interzone between urban and rural”. The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.”

The Guardian Review of Paul Farley & Michael Symmons book Edgelands by Robert MacFarlane 19 February 2011

Snickets, jitties or ginnels were part of my childhood playground and have become part of my children’s wonder-world too. They’re the narrow alleys, the secret valleys, the direct though-cuts, the often officially unrecognised routes between here-and-there. They are ‘the backs’.

I’ve an abiding fascination for liminality, for edges and points of transition, and ‘grey zones’ in general. Snickets are liminal places.

In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants stand at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way.

The concept of liminality was later developed in the early 20th century by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. More recently, usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rituals. During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.

The term has now passed into still broader popular usage and defines transitional spaces between one defined function (a road or rail line for example) and another (housing or industrial land).

The ginnel (pronounced in my part of Derbyshire with a soft ‘g’ as ‘jin-il’) in my imagination was all about adventure and secrets. Even in a rural village they were edgy, edge-of-the-known-world places. And they had a bleak beauty, perverse really given that they were ignored and unloved places, dog sh_tty places, beer-can repositories and margins of iniquity. Yet, in my imagination, there was no denying that there was something about these slightly seedy, ‘I dare you to go down there after dark!’ kind of places that, in turning from a noisy throughfare into the quiet place had the power to suddenly transport me somewhere else entirely.

Close to home today is what might be described as a classic slice of liminality. It’s a cut-through from the Finchley Road and West End Lane, a path that skirts the London overground line between Frognal and West Hampstead and crosses the Midland mainline. It’s carries a rather wonderful name – the Billy Fury Way.

The path was named in 2010 following a local poll. The police had asked the community to provide names for various unnamed paths that linked a number of local roads. Their thinking being that it’d help them locate criminality if people could name where they’d seen an act being perpetrated. Billy Fury – one of Britain’s original rock & roll stars – recorded regularly at what was once the Decca Studios (and what is now home to English National Opera’s wardrobe department) in Broadhurst Gardens a few yards away and was the most popular name polled.

There were grand plans to develop Billy Fury Way as a linear mural cum graffiti gallery but that never happened and these days the path is becoming invisible again.

It’s a route the Boys and I often take, as it’s a place where they can ride their scooters or bikes unhindered by road traffic or pedestrians. In Billy Fury Way we go snail hunting, blackberry picking or train spotting… It may be a bit of an eyesore, a little down-at-heel, but it’s our path and part of our weekend meanderings. It’s a liminal place that holds an odd, special place in our imaginations.


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