London Calling: connecting with big cities

Last week I was in London.  It was my first real visit to the city (layovers at the airport don’t count), and I was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop.  I wanted to see ALL the things, have ALL the experiences, and, probably somewhere deep in my heart, I wanted London to rub off on me.  So many British cultural icons emerged from London that the city itself has become iconic.  It represents an idea of ‘coolness’, a playground for ‘cutting-edge’ artists and cultural creatives at the fore of social experimentation. Perhaps the reality is vastly different from the image, but that’s what icons are all about–they inspire through their symbolism.  So London, like all cities, is about the human-persons who live there; what they create, what they build, and how, as a collective, they shape Place.

When I travel, and especially when I visit somewhere new, I like to attune myself to my surroundings. I adjust my antenna to the same frequency as my new place, to better connect with and understand the identity and character of both the geographic area and the cultural landscape.  This process can take anywhere from two hours to two years, and have an impact on my body.  You see, sometimes the vibration is like a stream, gently skipping over a shallow bed of pebbles. Sometimes the vibration is like punk music screaming out of a too close speaker.  The difference often being whether I’m in town or country.  London definitely screamed Sex Pistols at me, but I was prepared.  I drank plenty of water, I took frequent breaks the first day, and migraine treatment was administered at the first sign of cranial tightening.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere , human-persons living in cities may struggle to connect with the larger construct, or energy, of the city as a whole, but they can easily connect to Places Within Places.  In my post on the “Top 10 Tips For Cultivating Place In The City” I broke-down how to engage 10 simple practices intended to cultivate immediacy and connection in the midst of urban chaos.  During my five days in London I used many of these tips.  Their use contributed to an authentic experience and sense of connection – I love London!

I began by focusing on ‘home base’.  I knew I was staying in Battersea, so I began with a little research on the history of the area.  I was already vaguely familiar with the history of Londinium, and then modern London, but my strategy of focusing on Places Within Places required I be more specific, so I looked for information about the village of Battersea.  Turns out, Badrices īeg (as it was known in Anglo-Saxon times) was an island settlement in the river delta of the Falconbrook, which connects into the Thames.  This sounded perfect!  An ancient human settlement located at a liminal space, a connecting point; a smaller, more intimate, experience flowing into the larger body.  I also learned it was a working class industrial area, settled from the sixteenth-century by Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  This was enough information for me to feel a sense of human connection.  So when I walked out of the tube station the day I arrived, I focused on attuning, and as I walked down the tiny lane to the house I had rented, I searched for clues to the areas modern story, so I could incorporate my sensual experience with my research.

I used this approach repeatedly, and with much success. When I visited Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank I first focused on the areas history as an ‘arts centre’ (theatre and public entertainment were outlawed within the City walls, so artists flocked across the river Thames), and then attuned myself to the modern sense of place.  The same applied to King’s Road in Chelsea; St. Paul’s Cathedral in the ‘City of London’ (which is distinct from the modern megacity); or even Soho in the City of Westminster.  It was helpful that London, like cities everywhere, swallowed neighboring villages and towns as it expanded (now engaging what sociologists call ‘edge city growth’, with satellite towns or bedroom communities feeding into the larger city), because it gave me a named, smaller bite to chew on.  As I ventured into each new ‘borough’, I took time to readjust my antenna — not viewing these landmarks as part of one large city, but as Places Within Places.

There are many aspects of modern city life that I disagree with, and think we could do better, but as edifices they truly are the anthills — or bee hives — of our civilization.  Their buzz and efficiency can be quite alluring.  They also each possess unique systems, reflecting the priorities and cultural perceptions of those human-persons who occupy them.  As an animist, and a witch, the environmental impact of cities is hard to take.  Yet, they are not leaving us.  I believe as we embrace them, and come to work intentionally within our cities — instead of dreaming ways to escape them — we can find the connection to place we seek, and shape our human ‘beehives’  in ways that reflect our pagan perceptions and priorities.

About Traci

Traci Laird is an animist living in Ireland and hails from the great state of Texas (a mythic heritage she is quite proud of!).  Her current academic pursuits are in Sociology and Psychology, and she engages a “sensuous scholarship” when seeking to understand Place.  She can also be found at Confessions of a Hedge Witch

  • Christine Kraemer

    You should teach your Urban Witch class again sometime. You have some concrete insights about how to work with city energy that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Maybe there’s a book in there, actually. ;> There are some books on urban Paganism, but I don’t think they’re this sophisticated.

    • Traci

      Well, if you give me some tips on how to go about it, I’m up for the challenge! I’m actually looking forward to offering that class again when I return to Texas. The three years living abroad have really solidified my ideas about place-based practice.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    It is interesting how different people can get a completely different reaction to the same place, isn’t it?

    I have been to London numerous times and have never once come away with a positive impression of the place. In fact, I feel safe to say that it is one of my least favourite places ever.

    I do not visit London. I suffer it.

    • Traci

      Hello Lēoht,
      Thank you for reading, and commenting! I would love to hear what steps you took, if any, to connect with London during your time there? If you actively engaged a process to build connection, or at least connect to the sense of place Londoners have built for themselves, why do you think it was unsuccesful for you?
      Looking forward to hearing about your own experience of trying to build connection!

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I didn’t try and build connection with London. The thought of it repulses me.

        I have an easy time making connections with certain places (The New Forest and Hambledon Hill, for example), but, to me, London felt like it was rotting, decomposing. I don’t even like the smell of it.

        (To put in perspective, I currently live on the edge of a town with a population of around 40,000, and I dislike it as too urban.)

        I prefer remote wilderness. (Which is pretty awkward when I have such a connection to this one island…)

        • Traci

          Ah, I understand! True wilderness is unnerving to me, though I admit to being truly mesmerized when in it–and doing recklace things, like taking my Little Bigs off trail in the Rocky Mountains! Eep. I grew-up on a large farm, and live now in the rolling countryside of east Cork, but for over a decade I lived in a large city (my first, and only time). It was hard, physically and psychically. It was sheer desperation that drove me to make peace with my environment and learn how to connect with the city, as I had no escape–single parent needing a job, etc. Now, as an academic focusing on sociology and psychology I realize how important it is for human-persons to find healthy, integrative ways to connect within an urban environment, as our urban populations are projected to swell. I would personally prefer our human numbers to decrease, and a return to human-sized villages be the norm, but it won’t happen in our lifetime. So, I want to focus on working within our cities to create life and connection.
          You know, I have always wanted to visit the New Forest!

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I am in full agreement about the need for population reduction. (I do my part – my boys are recycled.)

            Personally, I find the urban environment wholly unnatural and undesirable. I think more should be done to encourage people to form low impact inter-sufficient villages and communities.

            Some people like cities/large urban areas and I think that is fine, let them stay there. Just allow those that do not work well in such places the ability to remove themselves from that aspect of society.

            Of course, that is all politics and fiscal economics. Probably best to leave well alone.

  • Áine Órga

    I love this homage to cities – and I’ll be using your advice soon as I’m taking a short holiday in London next month. I’ve spent a few half days here and there in London, and I’ve loved it so far. It’s so huge and sprawling that I find it harder to get to grips with than most European cities, but I’m hoping to get the feel of a few different areas within the city, as you suggest.

    • Traci

      Hi Áine
      Thanks for reading, and commenting! I would love to hear how your trip goes, and whether you are able to connect more directly using these techniques. If you think of it, please do comment back here after your trip! I really enjoyed London, and think it has a lot to offer!

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