Living on the beautiful edge: Escape routes from the city

This post is written in collaboration with outdoor, travel, and landscape photographer Sam Knight who joined me for some of my walks and has provided all the photos for this blog. See his full website: http://www.samsknight.com.

Like many others, when lockdown was first proposed, I was scared. I am one of those people who rent a studio flat without a garden. This flat was never supposed to contain me. My living room was in the pub, and my working week was spent commuting up to London from Brighton where I have always lived. The flat was perfect for this life, a good base. But even beyond this – I felt like I had made it. Despite the fact I have no central heating, a kitchen as old as I am, and no plumbing for a washing machine, I felt like I had finally made it in life, because I lived in one of those cool old Victorian houses in a neighbourhood near the centre of town called the Seven Dials.  

As soon as I started earning my own money, I knew I wanted to live here. Growing up, I was envious of my school friends that lived in this magical spot at the top of a hill in the middle of Brighton where it only takes ten, or maybe twenty minutes to get anywhere that’s worth going to. You can get straight down to the beach almost as quickly as you can get to the supermarket. To open parkland as quickly as the centre of town. It is a commuter’s paradise – strolling down to Brighton station only takes five minutes in the morning. And if you really want to go, it’s just an hour’s walk to any farthest point in the city, but in that hour, you could also be in London via train if you wanted to be. At the same time, it is a quiet area with local shops, hidden away from high-street shoppers and party-goers. It has long gone through the processes of gentrification. Hipster cafes with sourdough bread, vintage clothing, and furniture for sale. Pubs with pints over a fiver. Shops with plastic-free, organic, and gluten-free vegetables.

Now, sitting in my flat, on the top of a hill, in the back half of the second floor of a Victorian house, I can see down, out, and over to where I grew up; five miles away on the periphery of the city, a suburb called Hangleton.  A village once, but built up in the 1950s to provide both council and affordable housing to a growing city population. Of course, nowadays there are fewer state-owned homes since Margaret Thatcher sold all the governments’ housing to private buyers in the 1980s. There are no delicatessens or vegan minimarkets. A couple of chippies, a few take-outs, and an Uncle Sam’s burger bar. A pub with pints for just £2.15 on Mondays. There is a bakery, but the old-fashioned type, with doughnuts for 55p rather than a friand for £2.50. When I hit my teenage years, my friends from the Seven Dials used to joke that I didn’t really live in Brighton. But we still had the city’s emblem on our bin, I told them.

Like many cities, the gentrification of the city centre has pushed a lot of families out to these edges. As moneyed Londonders moving down to Brighton snap up the vogue Victorian houses close to the station for an easy commute, or as landlords see the profit they can make through turning homes into student housing, families who might have intergenerationally lived in the centre move to the peripheries. I spent my teenage years yearning to live closer to where my friends lived, in the cool, hipster, centre of town. But as I will go on to explain, since March 2020, these places have come to change their meanings, their connotations. For me at least, and my friends who work in letting agencies suggest I may not be the only one…  

Back to being stuck in a studio flat in the centre of town without a garden, without a car. Pub shut. Why did I think this was a good place to live? Of course, there has been a great community spirit round here during lockdown, faces about of neighbours I have grown to love over the years. Some knocked on my door with treats, or just stayed for a long conversation in the street. I have tried my best to return some of the thought, surprises, and favours. It is a special place. But like most people, I still felt stuck. There was no need for the train station to take me up to London anymore – the pandemic has kept most office-workers, and certainly those commuting long distances on public transport, working from home since March. Why did I never learn to drive?

The weeks were okay, I set myself up a place to work and there were things I had to be getting on with. But I was most scared of the weekends. A vast empty space. Hours ahead of me, stuck with my own thoughts, no distraction. That can be dangerous. Just think about the things you can do, I told myself. I could still shower. I could sit at the window when the sun shines in at the end of the day. And I can walk. We were lucky in England, we have always been allowed to go outside for exercise and no one has put a time or distance limit on us. So I walked.

I walked from the white-off-white four storey Victorian houses, beyond the leafy suburbs with ideal family homes, to the suburbs of the suburbs; names of places like Hangleton, Whitehawk, Moulsecoomb, Coldean, and Hollingdean, also with nice homes but tainted from the very beginnings by trash newspaper connotations of council estates and social housing. I walked until I found the edges of the city.

Be careful at the top of the hill, people used to say. The streets at the back of Hangleton, on the top of the hill, were always meant to be more risky. When I was 17, 18, meeting other friends from round the city, I heard the same thing about Moulsecoomb, another suburb the other side of town. You don’t want to go up the top, up there, he told me, it’s dangerous. And perhaps it was for a young man who grew up there, having formed friendships and rivalries. Nevertheless, it has stuck with me. Round here, you’ve got to be careful at the top of the hill, the back of the housing estates, the periphery of the city. Watch out, hold your guard. In this city, the peripheries are marked as scarier, more dangerous – I’m starting to think, because they are further away from a collectively imagined more civilised centre. The centre of Brighton, for those who don’t know, has a reputation as a liberal, lgbt-friendly, feminist place. But the edges, well, as some of my friends used to suggest, don’t even get recognised as part of this city.

But these are the places where I found the escape routes, nestled between two back gates, or through an almost unnoticeable crack in the trees lining the road. You might find the path hidden behind the delivery entrance to a supermarket, wedged between a fence and a garden hedge, or at the bottom of a children’s playground. Careful you’re not walking into someone’s drive-way, or some dodgy woods, condom wrapper on the floor. These pathways sometimes have tokens of what some may see as signs of deprivation, but which I suggest are also signs of freedom: Graffitied information boards, a burnt-out car chassis, semi-permanent communities living in vans, a cairn made of fly-tipped rubble, teenagers smoking pot.

These short passageways are like stepping into the wardrobe, one side is the estate, but the other is a wide-open expanse, a wealth of possibility. Beware the top of the hill – but no one mentioned that the other side was so beautiful. The edge of the city, but the beginnings of the rest of the world. A few steps further along the track and looking back is something else entirely, the whole city sprawled out down to its abrupt stop on the sealine, and its staggered offshoots reaching into the green hills. Each time I looked back on the city in which I was confined, I felt a sense of defiance, of freedom, of leaving the city behind. For no reason in particular, other than to prove to the city that you can. That it can’t trap you or maintain you, or sustain you. That you are not completely attached to it and its shelter, commodities, and toilet roll; that you can survive without it. At the same time stepping out gives you a sense of belonging. Standing there, looking back, it is as if every woman, man, human, can have purchase over their shared territory, their life-world, their place. You don’t have to live in the centre of the city to feel like you own it. You can step outside it and look back from a distance.

I’ve been running away from the suburbs for ten years. Now I am running back to them. Lockdown has been tough for everyone who lives on their own. But walking on the Up and Downs has really saved me from the worst of it. By the time I am home, in fact by the time I am even halfway through, my mind is too tired to think to turn in on itself. Being alone without the walls enables you to look out, rather than wander round your own head for hours. But in some paradoxical cataclysm, walking also allows you to think. To think in ways beyond computer screens, zoom meetings, and email trails. Walking has a long history, a path, trajectory left by others who have sworn by walking as a way of processing our thoughts. Rousseau, Nietzsche, Wordsworth – big old man names, and, George Eliot, all suggested the best thoughts come from walking[i].

I think this is because walking has a strange sociality to it. Of course, there is that mysterious scenario in the countryside, or even on the fringes of the city, where it’s okay to talk to passers-by. Just to nod hello or stop for a twenty-minute conversation. In these exchanges I found that many people were doing what I was doing – exploring the escape routes from the city to find freedom and peace during lockdown. But sociality is more than our relations with humans. It’s about our relations with the rest of the world. I have made friends with plants. Flirted with birds. As they come to say hello and fly off again. These relations spark new connections in our thoughts, and in being away from the city, we can think outside of the seemingly possible, even perhaps outside of capitalism. There are so many more possibilities once you escape the buildings and infrastructures of those in power and rekindle the forgotten relations we have with the rest of the world.

In the UK, the countryside and the resulting National Parks have a strong class history, one which enabled people to find a bit of freedom in their lives. Most of the land was, and is still, owned by landed gentry, the church, and the monarch. But people fought for a right of way, ability to access the land for leisure, to walk, to escape the factories, the workhouses, and the mechanics of industrial capitalism. Years of protests, including, a peaceful mass trespass in 1932 onto the top of Kinder Scout, a hill in the Peak District, finally led to legislation for National Parks in 1949. As Chumbawumba have so well summarised, being able to walk out on the hills ensured that even though “All your week you were someone’s slave… today [walking high upon the hills] you’re a free man.” Sometimes the tune plays out in my head, as I ecstatically walk away from my computer, my new ‘home office’ at my kitchen table, and out onto the hills. I am lucky, I think. I know other people in other places have had time and distance limits imposed upon them, and we still need to do more work to ensure there are paths that those who can’t walk or find it difficult to walk can follow. But I am also lucky because I have always known in the back of my mind that walking helped me. Helped me escape, helped me breath, helped me to feel alive. Growing up, our yearly holiday was to a static caravan park in the countryside almost every year since I remember, and we could always go for a walk out the back of Hangleton if we were bored when we had time off school. Mum knew walking was free. Financially free at least. Freer than entertainment complexes, theme parks, or beach resorts. And some of that had sunk in – maybe growing up on the beautiful edge of the city was part of that.

Walking back off the hills, back into Moulsecoomb, into the peripheries of the city, I feel alive again after a week of work. Mum had echoed the sentiment I used to hear years ago – “be careful up the top of the hill”. But of course, there was as much community spirit there as there was in the Seven Dials. Stepping into the corner shop was like stepping into a community centre, like the still-closed local pub but for all ages. The woman behind the till was saying hello and asking after everyone who walked in – young kids playing out on their scooters or older men coming in for the paper. She laughed with me and Sam as we got to the till and had to run back into the shop when we suddenly decided we wanted an ice-cream to go with our water. Truth is, there’s communities wherever you go. And just as there’s people to watch out for on the top of the hill, there’s those to watch out for in the centre of the city.

The story of class and housing in the city is of course more complex than what I have described here. But these peripheral places notoriously get built all around the world to push populations out, gentrify the centre. House prices go up in the middle near the workplaces, and market capitalism can thrive on moving those with less money to homes with longer travel distances to work. Housing prices, so-called ‘desirable’ places to live, have long been based on our routes to work, rather than our routes to leisure. But maybe there’s a flip side to this. These strategies have inadvertently allowed those who are metaphorically on the periphery to be literally closer to be freedom, to live on the beautiful edge. Since Covid, people like me are starting to realise this. They are moving out of the big cities like London and finding space to breath. Further from work, closer to recreation. What this will mean long-term for housing markets and work practices is yet to be seen, but the crack, the realisation holds some hope for me.

I’m back ‘at work’ today. And it is no longer the weekends I fear, but the weekdays, when I must stay stuck sitting down, staring at a computer screen. I can see over to Hangleton from my window, the sun is breaking through the clouds, glistening on the houses against the hill. And I can’t wait until next weekend when I can walk back there, through the back gates to the rest of the world, and be a free woman. I am not quite ready to uproot from the friends and community I now feel very much part of at the Seven Dials, I am not yet ready to move back to the suburbs. But I am now a proud and frequent visitor. Maybe, one day, I’ll head back there. Yes, as Alfonso suggested in his latest blog, capitalism is resilient. It finds ways to strive even through lockdowns. But we also have to keep our feet to the ground, our eyes and ears open, to the cracks – to the everyday practices we can see that work other to capitalism and even against it.


[i] See Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

2 Replies to “Living on the beautiful edge: Escape routes from the city”

  1. Beautiful writing. We are lucky living in Brighton being so close to the sea on one side and downland on the other. I agree there is something magical about walking out of the city.

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