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Community / Public space

On the joys of being lost in a new city

It’s Sunday lunchtime. As I write, I am at London’s Euston station, awaiting my train to Liverpool for this year’s Labour party conference. And I am really, really looking forward to it. 

I always look forward to party conference season, of course: I’m just that sort of nerd. (Whole rooms full of wonkish people, arguing about housing policy!) But I realised yesterday I was particularly looking forward to this one, because – in between the fringe meetings about HS2 or social housing or wine-fuelled rows about Jeremy Corbyn – I’m going to have two days to explore Liverpool. And there are few things that give me greater pleasure than being dropped in a city I don’t know particularly well, and left to get myself lost.

Some people like walking in the country, and fair play to them, but I’ve never quite seen the point. It’s not that the countryside can’t be beautiful– it’s sometimes stunning, though perhaps not quite as often as its propagandists would claim. No, it’s simply that there isn’t a whole lot of stuff there. One field of sheep with some dry stone wall round it looks much the same as another.


Cities can often be beautiful, too – but even when they’re not they are at least, filled with stuff. There’s a density of incident that means it always feels worth walking onwards, just because you don’t know what you’re going to stumble upon next. In the countryside, you can find yourself stuck with the same view for an hour, and in that time even the most stunning of views can start to wear thin. 

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In a city, though, if you don’t like what you see, just walk around the next corner. You may not like that either, but at least you’ll not be liking something new. (This, by the way, is why such walks are best done in cities where you can, literally, get lost. If you’re not lost, you probably know what’s around the next corner, and where’s the fun in that?)

Liverpool is a relatively easy city to get excited about visiting. It has a lot of fine Victorian architecture, from its days as second city of the British Empire, and all sorts of more modern glories from its associations with the Beatles and so on. All this combines to give it the feel of a much bigger city than it actually is: Liverpool feels like it is somewhere. 

Liverpool’s skyline, as seen from the Mersey. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So in some ways it’s a bad example to explain the joys of aimless urban wandering, precisely because it’s the sort of place you might go to deliberately. But to get excited about visiting a new city, I don’t need it to have anything like the myriad attractions of Liverpool. I find I can get excited about spending a day exploring all sorts of unpromising places.

Washington DC is loathed by most Americans, even – especially – some of those who live there. But I spent two days last spring wandering aimlessly between government office blocks and residential quarters, trying to get to grips with how the city’s uniquely odd street grid functions, and I’ve rarely felt so contented.

I’ve had equally pleasant times wandering around Sheffield and Bradford and Wolverhampton, and they’ve been among the happiest days of my working life. It’s not that these places are particularly beautiful or exciting or noteworthy. It’s simply that they were unfamiliar, and even the most mundane of unfamiliar cities can keep me entertained for hours. Perhaps as a child I was bitten by a radioactive Bill Bryson or something. Who knows.

(There is a man in the Carlisle history museum, incidentally, who has spent a lot of time thinking about how their Roman centurion skeleton came to have a hole in his skull. I mean, a lot.)

There is a word for someone who engages in this sort of activity: the flâneur. The word has its origins in the more literary end of 19th century Parisian society, and means, literally, stroller or loafer. But it also implies a certain idleness, a rich man – always a man; a point of some contention – of leisure. Someone for whom wandering the streets of the city people-watching is somehow a radical act.

I hate that word. Partly because it implies a certain laziness – to my mind, if you’re not clocking up the miles, you’re wasting valuable time – but also because it turns wandering about into a branch of philosophy.

And all that feels a bit too grand. Walking is a form of exploration, I suppose, though even that sounds a bit pretentious, and anyway, it’s the city I’m interested in exploring, not myself. When I walk, it’s just because I want to know what this new place looks like. How people live here. Where they work, where they shop, how they move about. What this particularly slice of humanity has brought into being as a place to live their lives. And the reason I want to clock up the miles is because I want to see as much as I can, before I’m next required to be in a specific place at a particular time, which – as I get older – increasingly tends to be rather soon.

This slightly wonkish desire to understand how a city functions is a common phenomenon, I think, at least among the sort of people who read CityMetric. In its rawest form, it tends to show up as a love of maps, and especially metro or subway maps.

But think that’s symptom, not cause, of something deeper – or perhaps a gateway drug, a way in. A metro map is simply the easiest way to understand how a city fits together. It’s like reading the blurb on the back of a book – showing you things to explore, places you can go. The tube map is London represented in its simplest, most stripped down form. It’s our easiest mental model for how something so big and complicated and full of people and history actually works.

(A thought. Perhaps that’s why north Londoners have historically been so sniffy about the huge swathe of the the city that lies south of the river: its absence from the map means it’s literally not in their London at all.)

At any rate, this is my first trip to Liverpool since July 2009 (another conference; that one involved nurses). And rather at lot has happened in those seven years – to me, to Liverpool, to the world.

So, for next two days, whenever I don’t have a meeting to be in, I will be dedicating my time to wandering around the city and, gazing at bits of it. I’m going to check out the Ropewalks and the Baltic Triangle, which I’ve published articles on, but never actually seen. I’m going to wander around the private Liverpool One development, and see how it meshes with the older, real-er city around it. I may even, if I find the time, climb the hill at Everton Park, to help me see the whole city in one sweep.

And I am really, genuinely delighted about this prospect.

Do say hi if you spot me.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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