Beating the Bounds

by Katherine Robinson

12 June 2020
Originally published in our Old Blog.

It’s now early summer, the time of year to beat the bounds. Beating the bounds is an ancient tradition in which people gather together to walk the boundaries of the local area, and in this way, re-establish rights of common land. It was a way of passing on local knowledge, a way of teaching children how to navigate their locality and a way of learning where you were from.  Beating the bounds can be understood as a form of collective knowledge, acquired through the ritual of seasonal repetition and the embodied movements of walking together.

Several summers ago, Ros Gray and I designed a workshop at Goldsmiths allotment to explore how we might think about beating the bounds today, and from our New Cross location. We reflected on the long histories of growing in the area and drew connections between Goldsmiths’ allotment and other local growing sites. We finished the workshop by beating the bounds of Goldsmiths. In a small, uneven procession, a bit uncertain about what we were doing, we walked around the edges of the campus, carrying willow sticks decorated with flowers and ribbons, and tapping them on trees, fences and other markers as we went.  In a corner of the back field, by the tennis courts, we found a rusted boundary post, marking the old border between Surrey and Kent which ran through New Cross.  We tapped our sticks along the line of trees behind the Whitehead Building, and against the quince trees (felled earlier this year to make way for the construction of Goldsmiths Enterprise Hub) that hung over the fence at the end of Laurie Grove.

Returning to old rituals that punctuate the growing year is not, as Ros writes, ‘a nostalgic attempt at return to a fantasy of the past. Rather it is an attempt to conjure a different relation with the earth and its human and non-human beings in a time of social, environmental and psychological crisis.’ Beating the bounds means paying attention to the grounding scale of locality; it offers signs of where you are and points to connections with others.

Boundaries of lockdown

This has taken on an added resonance during ‘lockdown’, a confinement to the local that has been demarcated by boundaries of its own, in particular between ‘key workers’ and those who ‘work from home’, occupational lines which themselves are stratified by class, race and migration status. The belated re-valuing as essential exactly those low-paid workers considered by the hostile environment of UK immigration policy to be ‘low-skilled’, and the concomitant exposure of these now essential and key workers to deadly risk, reveals stark contradictions.

My academic job allows me to be one of those who work from home; fine enough, for me, although I miss seeing my colleagues and the students, and even, as Les Back has written about, the habitual rhythms of ‘going to work’ (2016: 68).  Yet, to ‘work from home’ also assumes a troubling logic of domestic ease, which is steeped in the same ‘common sense’ that Kiran Grewal has recently critiqued in relation to ‘the household’.  This common sense flattens out the complex, tense and highly differentiated experiences of how ‘work’ enters ‘home’ which have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Daily walks

It’s been at least three months since I last went to Goldsmiths. Despite my best intentions to keep up my visits to the allotment to water and weed, after a week or two at home, the familiar three-mile bike ride to New Cross started to feel like a journey too far to undertake.  Instead, staying close to home, I have been walking, together with Matt, my partner and companion in lockdown.  Over the months, we have headed out in every direction, moving from busy Brixton Road into quiet side streets and the small green spaces that dot the area. Looking now at the council’s map of local wards, I see that our routes have not taken us to beat these boundaries, as their edges so often run along big roads. Instead, in tracing out walks along quieter streets, we have followed different lines: ducking into small parks created from cleared bomb sites, passing through elegant crescents of town houses, along railway arches, skirting the hoardings of building sites that have fallen silent, using cut throughs in estates that are named after long-gone landmarks.

Reflecting on how her usual routes and rhythms of walking have been transformed through walking with her baby, Emma Jackson writes, ‘It’s a kind of walking that embeds me further into place rather than always taking me off to new destinations’. Emma’s phrase resonates with me as I think about how Matt and I have repeatedly criss-crossed our neighbourhood, finding a repertoire of routes that layers together places we’ve always known, with small discoveries of new-to-us landmarks and experiences; an annex to a park that we had somehow never been to, the unheimlich sensation of walking a familiar route from the opposite direction.

Alex Rhys-Taylor has written recently about practices of urban etiquette and how these codes of civility have recently adjusted to accommodate social distancing.  As we walk, Matt and I make unaccustomed eye contact with others on the pavement, negotiating how to make way; shifting into single file, jumping into the road to create space, or coming to a sudden halt at a corner as we hear someone else approaching. It is tiring; walking in these stops and starts does not allow the usual relaxing rhythms of walking to get established. We get hot and frazzled. I notice how I feel particularly self-conscious and responsible for how we’re moving; I find myself trying to pre-emptively direct our path out of others’ way – I don’t want us to be one of those couples that have attracted ire on twitter for their lack of spatial consideration.  While each of us is getting to grips with the new routines for ceding space as a gesture of mutual protection, I’m also wryly aware of how my heightened sense for avoiding others, my anticipatory reflexes to avoid, go around, and get out of the way have been honed over a lifetime’s practice.

Lines of travel

Bank Holiday Monday. Matt and I head down Lansdowne Way, past the open doors of Stockwell bus garage, the elegant 1950s curves of its vaulted concrete ceiling bouncing back the engine noise and the sounds that accompany the work of cleaning and maintaining the buses that continue to be driven on their usual routes. Driving the buses hasn’t stopped, bus drivers are key workers.  At the same time, there has been a miserable lack of care and protective equipment afforded to bus drivers, and their essential work has placed them and other transport workers in deadly danger. Over 43 TfL workers, 29 of them bus drivers, are known to have died so far during the pandemic. As Yasmin Gunaratnam has said, in relation to her powerful and moving response to the deaths of health workers, ‘We need to think of personal protective equipment not only as masks, gloves and gowns, but as structures of inequality’.

We turn onto Larkhall Lane, which becomes Larkhill Rise, gaining height as we walk towards Clapham, following a route that feels like a much older line of travel and connection. Larkhall Rise turns into Rectory Road, a sign that we are near St Paul’s churchyard. We go through a gate, after waiting for some others to come out first, and find ourselves at the top of a terrace of greenery and gravestones, and a view towards the tower blocks in Wandsworth. Here, at the top of the hill, there is also a community garden, called Eden.

Another day.  After I’ve left her shopping on the step, banged the door knocker and jumped back, I stand at my friend Wendy’s gate and we chat, Wendy standing inside her doorway. It’s warm and sunny, and as we talk, I gradually become aware of the astonishing flow of people jogging and walking past on the pavement in front of her house.  Wendy says that it’s always busy. The constant procession of people is a moving, living marker of how Wendy’s road forms a connection between Clapham Common and busy Brixton Hill. For Wendy, who is shielding in her home, this stream of people taking their exercise or just popping to the mini market at the end of the street, could be a depressing symbol of how the virus has, for now, fixed her to the spot.  But she is in good spirits, mostly, she says. Wendy is an artist, and her commitment to painting every day gives her structure and inspiration. We laugh at how everyone is a jogger these days, and as we talk, she nods a hello to each passer-by.

Staying attentive

For me and Matt, these months of containment that have knocked us out of our familiar commutes and routes as we have ‘worked from home’, have made us learn to navigate where we live in a new way.  The seasonality of our local explorations which have renewed our attentiveness to local landmarks and lines of travel reflects one meaning of beating the bounds. But beating the bounds this summer also shows how we might reach to older practices of collectively connecting and engaging; thinking with a sense of care about where we are and who we live beside – that might help us navigate an uncertain, fragile and socially distanced present.  This time of virus lockdown has exposed boundaries of precarity, vulnerability and injustice, as the fault lines of the common sense on which normal life usually proceeds have been rendered visible.  Staying attentive to and politically mobilising around these boundaries is what we must now navigate, as the seasons of the year continue to unfold under the conditions of Covid-19.

Thanks: to Ros for her inspiration and help, Georgie for her thoughtful comments, Stephen for the image of the allotment, and to Matt and Wendy for generously allowing me to write about them.

Dr Katherine Robinson is Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Goldsmiths allotment image by Stephen McFarlane. ‘Tavern Lane’ sign image by Katherine Robinson.