Urban Exploration (as a country bumpkin)

Okay, so this might be a bit of a strange one but bear with me…
I’m currently down in London (Brixton to be precise) visiting friends, having a few business meetings and mooching about in the free museums and other metropolitan diversions. Those who know me well, and know where and how I live, will see that this is really something different for me… I live in a remote Welsh farmhouse, 1000ft above sea level, on the edge of a vast expanse of forest and with a rutted driveway that is quite literally nearly a mile long. There are no streetlights, other houses nearby or useful things like buses or shops. Chopping wood for an hour isn’t a pleasant diversion on a weekend away in the woods – it is what we have to do every couple of days in order to get the temperature of the house into double figures during the winter. When it snows we are cut off and to get to the pub I have to break out the snowshoes.

I think you get the idea.

So being whisked down to a city with an integrated public transport system, stuff to see and do on every corner and heat, light and company whenever you want it is something of a revelation. I feel like Constable Benton Fraser

We don’t come down to London that often. Running dozens of bushcraft, navigation and outdoor skills courses throughout the year keeps us rather busy and any free time is taken up with escapes in to the great outdoors for some personal adventures. When we do come we try to pack as much as we can into the visit – making our London friends roll their eyes as we scroll through the tourist-y venues and attractions before making an assault on the city, armed with oyster card and DSLR. This trip has made em think about urban exploration, and how it compares to the skills I employ in the wilderness or when teaching those skills to others. I really do think that the important skills for travel in the mountains, forests and wilderness areas have some relevance to travel in the city:

Direction, Distance and Duration

My friend Salim assures me that ‘nobody walks in London’. This appears to be true, at least over any distances more than half a mile or so. The excellent bus and underground and overground network, coupled with shops and facilities in every corner of every borough means that travel on foot is largely unnecessary. So a different kind of navigation is required… but with the same basic skills as navigating in the mountains and forests. You need a map (paper map in the wilderness, wall-mounted tube, bus or street map in the city), some way of determining direction (compass in the wilderness, signposts in the city), a way to measure distance (pacing, timing etc in the outdoors, signposts and street features in the city) and a measure of duration (errrr, a watch I suppose. For both…). We get plenty of town-based clients who come to us to learn to navigate without a clue how to orientate a map and interpret symbols, yet manage to read bus maps at home. A similar skill-mindset is required for both environments, you just need to work out what is actually going on in your mental processes.

Planning and Logistics

One of my favourite activities (I know, I know…) is planning for a multi-day trip somewhere muddy and interesting. Poring over maps, packing and repacking gear bags and working out how to manage yourself and your group for the duration of the trip gives me sense of purpose and satisfaction that I don’t really get from anywhere else. Yes, I do realise that I may be a bit odd…Today we planned to visit a couple of the museums, take some interesting photos and maybe explore some of the quirky backstreet shopping areas. Cameras were packed and charged, tube maps consulted and oyster cards pocketed. We picked up some bottled water on the way out and set off – a fairly tame and tourist-y day out in London, but not dissimilar to my last wild camping trip. The night before my client and I looked over the 1:25,000 map of Northern Snowdonia, selected a few likely-looking spurs and ridges to follow, packed rucksacks and shopped for last-minute food items and arranged to be dropped off somewhere in the National Park. We had planned what we were doing, how we were doing it, what we were taking and arranged other resources to ensure the plan was executed.

Situational Awareness

I don’t really have to deal with traffic at home. If I were to step out blindly on to the nearest bit of publicly-owned tarmac near to the house I would be pretty unlucky to be struck by a car. If I tried that on the street on Brixton next to where we are staying I would probably be flat under the number 30 to Oxford Circus. We don’t have much in the way of traffic or congestion – tractors and logging lorries make up most of the metalwork moving about on the roads. But here I find myself in a heightened state of awareness most of the time, particularly when on a busy road. The slightly unexpected one-way roads, traffic light time periods and renegade cyclists mean that even when partway across a side road you still can’t be sure that you aren’t about to be bashed into the tarmac by a passing vehicle. Although still a fairly safe place to walk down the road, it’s still an interesting place to be at rush hour. A bit like canoeing, or climbing – even on a relatively safe route or river you still need to keep an eye out for that dodgy hold or gear placement, or that piece of debris that may cause an entrapment hazard.

I could continue, but I would probably be accused of trying to shoehorn some fairly tenuous similes into this post. But for now, the point remains that although I am in the middle of streets, skyscrapers and suburbanites the skills we use in the forests, rivers and mountains still come into play.

We just might not realise it. Or care… I do though, and maybe you should too.

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