I signed up for Hamish Fulton’s walk weeks ago, during a burst of research into walking artists in preparation for the SW festival. The walk was a joint event between Ikon Gallery and Fierce Festival and fell on Easter Sunday; also the last day of the Fierce festival. The walk was never described any more precisely than a “city centre walk, with Hamish Fulton”. We met in a drizzly Curzon Street Park, an expansive but empty post-industrial vista, best known now for being the proposed site of HS2. Many assumed this was merely the meeting place and we would soon march off through the city, possibly with an umbrella clutching Hamish drawing our attention to things of interest he’d observed in the city. I’m interested in what the “rules” or parameters are for a guided walk – what people’s expectations are if you announce there is going to be a walk in the city. These could be how long the walk will last, what the content will be, how much walking and how much talking to expect, price, distance, whether it will return to the starting point… Hamish confounded many walker’s expectations by announcing that the walk would last two hours and would be entirely within the confines of the space and specifically on a 150m raised “plateau” in the centre of the space. What’s more, we would not be walking far: we would choose a line on the plateau (cracks or gaps in the concrete, or lines left from the space’s previous life as a parcel depot) and follow that for it’s length.
The announcement coincided with a noticeable drop in temperature. Hamish clarified more conditions for the walk: we would each have our own line and wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. We couldn’t use phones (although I did set up a Twitter hashtag for the event). A gong would signal the start and end of the walk and the walk would last for exactly 2 hours: we would need to carefully pace our journey to end on time. Some people went home immediately, recognising they weren’t up for a walk like that. But around 75 people did decide they were going to do it, and of those only 5 had to stop due to cold or exhaustion. I think there was a sense of adventure amongst some (including myself) but also a feeling of gamely “may as well do it now” amongst many. Someone asked Hamish “Why are we doing this?” and, tellingly, “Are you going to do it too?”
Once on the platform, we saw the many lines we could choose: some only a few inches, if we so chose, or the longest possible which would be the entire length of the platform. People seemed to select quickly and mark their spot. Then the first gong sounded. My line was about 50 meters and crossed eight large concrete sections, which meant I needed to cover each in about 15 mins. I could see five people near my starting point. Some had books to read, one a Nintendo. Hamish hadn’t said DON’T play Nintendo, so it must have been OK. Over the first 30 mins, I established Twitter contact with one person who had also photographed her line. I recognised a white splodge in her picture and worked out that I would intersect her terminal point in about 10 minutes. There was a nice parallel with the real world: if I’m in town I might have arranged via Twitter to meet someone after they finished work at a specific point: this was a micro-society at work! After that I left Twitter alone to focus on the experience at hand.
It was interesting to find that once I had passed three other people walking at right angles to me, I felt more in the “wilds” of the plateau. Time also felt different: The last hour didn’t drag in any way despite the exposure to the cold. Perhaps because we knew our destination and ETA, and had chosen to do it, rather than, say, missing a train and being forced to find a way home on foot. There was a real sense of moving into “new” territory. I was looking closely at plant life growing in the cracks, rusty bits of metal, graffiti, oils spills, and the promise of a new pebble to kick around a few feet ahead was keenly anticipated. I was also aware of moving slowly into someone else’s territory at the end of the line. Nearby, I could see Hamish Fulton making his own very short walk. His stepping technique was different to mine: he was inching forward inch by inch: I was taking a step whenever it occurred to me to do it. At one point, motivated by nothing, I took four bold, quick steps. I could see across the people on the plateau a constant twitching motion as someone in the gathered stillness took another step. It was never wholly static. The event also had an audience: train passengers on the nearby rail link must have wondered what was happening if they looked out of their window. No explanation would seem to satisfy what they were seeing: 70 people standing in their own space in a deserted concrete landscape. Only art allows that to happen.
When the second gong sounded, I was still a few inches short of the destination. I didn’t feel any different (other than colder) or find I’d realised anything important, or even feel I’d reflected on anything significant. But was glad I’d done it: a rare and special to be part of something that is unlikely to happen again. I often suggest to people they stop and look at the city rather than walk past it at a fast pace – there are worthwhile things to see that you will miss by walking at all. Slow walking at this pace allows observation but requires a determination that goes beyond merely being interested in a space. But I’ll try it again for shorter intervals – I think slowing down is generally a very good idea.