The paths of desire

I had to go to Bedworth yesterday.

Someone once told me that Bedworth is the exact centre of the UK.

I suspect this is not true. It seems to be one of those claims to fame that gets touted around a fair few places in the middle of the country, a bit like the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field.  Our part of the country is not exactly oozing with fabulous, must see locations, and when one has a title, it is important to hang on to it for as long as possible.

I have only ever been to Bedworth once before.  That was to see the panto last year, on a coach with 100 revved up infants.  You could be going to Las Vegas and not whip up a lot of enthusiasm, if you’re forced to journey there and back with 100 insanely excited small children.

My recollection of the visit involves being terribly afraid that the seating in the Civic Hall would cave in if the children did ‘Gangnam Style’ one more time, and wondering whether it really was Ruth Madoc from Hi De Hi playing the fairy godmother.  The journey home was particularly tense as we realised we had forgotten the sick bucket at the point where a child was looking increasingly more green of hue with every mile that passed.

On closer inspection yesterday, in the dying light of a winter’s afternoon, it made me think that even if Bedworth isn’t the exact centre of the UK, it seems a shame to take the title away from them if people who live there think it is.  They need something, anything.

The world’s largest cotton bud if necessary.  You know, one of those things that American small towns put up to give them a claim to fame.  I once saw the world’s largest hockey stick somewhere in a town in Canada.  That would do.

I did quite a tour of Bedworth, getting filtered in interesting traffic patterns three times in the two miles from the motorway exit to the centre of the town.  I investigated further when I turned up at the car park with only forty pence in my pocket and was required to navigate the ring road to find a Tesco which had a bank machine, get some money, acquire some change, and then navigate my way back to my original destination.

All the while I was winging it through the labyrinthine and frankly bonkers traffic system I was wondering about town planning.  What on earth possesses people to carve up towns like this?

Don’t get me wrong, Bedworth, or Beddurth as it is known round these parts, has never been an oil painting.  It’s kind of an overspill from when Coventry became industrialised, and really came into its own as a nineteenth century mining town.  If you didn’t know it was an ex mining town before you went there, you’d certainly be able to have a good stab at figuring it out if you spent more than ten minutes there.  It has that ragged, red brick Victorian vibe, coupled with the hacked in terraces of later years and the squat working men’s clubs of the fifties and sixties.  The buildings have been, for the most part, put up with no sense of a pleasing aesthetic, and you will often see the hulk of an old Victorian pub standing snaggle toothed against the skyline with either waste land surround it, or a disorderly queue of random buildings spilling away from it in any old order you like.  The kind of skyline that makes you think of post apocalyptic zombie films.

The  middle of the town is now pedestrianised, which puts even more pressure on the traffic system, and less footfall through the dying town centre, which seems to have been thrown up with more than a nod to the hideous and desperate post war architecture of bombed out Coventry, and whose main feature is the Civic Hall, which is a monstrosity of panelled concrete and resembles an enormous public lavatory.

I suppose, given its nearness to Coventry, it must have suffered a fair amount from the bombing raids on the city, which may explain the ragged nature of a lot of the buildings which seem to have been put up since the war.

It disheartens me that any money which has been spent in recent years however, seems to have been spent on ripping the heart further out of the town rather than making any attempt at cohesive town planning.

A gigantic, ice berg of a Tesco, looms over the edge of the town centre, dominated by a hideous multi storey car park which sits awkwardly against the sooty bricks and terraces.  It has at least two entrances, both festooned with mini roundabouts and options to go to more supermarkets, equally dominating and equally out of place.  These, it seems, will be the final death knell of the town centre, sucking what little life was left in it out.

The whole town is held together by a series of small roads which are knitted by endless mini roundabouts and complex box junctions, the purpose of which seems to be to either a) send you to the more far flung corners of Bedworth in the hope that you will get so lost you might actually give up and stay there, or b) get you out of the town as quickly as possible.

It saddens me that there seems to be such a lack of ‘planning’ in town planning.  Bedworth is not the only victim of this, by the way, it is just that, having spent quite a lot of time there yesterday, I had a lot of time to think about it.

I read something once, about how planners make paths in places like civic parks. There is a whole lot of technical nonsense to do with this, which was as dull as you would expect, but the thing that stuck with me from my reading was the lovely term ‘desire paths’.

Desire paths are the paths that people take regardless of whether there is an actual path in place or not.  The desire paths follow people’s intuitive sense of where a path should be, and that intuition is so strong in people’s minds that they take those paths no matter what.

In Hinckley, near where I live, there is a park in the town centre, called Argent’s Mead.  It is the site of the old castle after which Castle Street, the high street, is named.  The site of the castle grounds is now a war memorial. The rest of the park sticks firmly to the very Seventies notion of a park, i.e. lots of formal flower beds with nasty bedding plants in it (sadly no floral clock – those days are long gone), and pointless paths cutting through swathes of lawn.  There are the obligatory wrought iron benches with views of the council offices, and a duck pond.

Oh, yes. I forgot the awful band stand. The one that never has bands in it, but does have piped music from four huge speakers that permanently play things like Beatles medleys via the medium of the pan pipes and which is eerie and odd and generally either deserted or full of teenagers clutching bottles of WKD.

Mainly, the point of Argents Mead, for most inhabitants of the town, is to get from the car park at the back of it, to the town centre on the other side of it.  It is a thoroughfare.

It is full of desire paths.  It always has been.  You can see them, because the grass is bald and when it rains, the desire paths are a slick of muddy earth.  Other desire paths spring up next to them in these cases, where people try to stick as closely as possible to their original path, but can’t, because of the mud.

The park got remodelled at vast expense a few years ago, an expense which the inhabitants of the town no doubt paid for.  When it was finished, it was interesting to see that the planners had paid no attention whatsoever to the desire paths of the people who lived in the town and used the park every day. They simply put paths in where their pie charts told them they could.

Within six months, every desire path that had been turfed over was back, and is used every day by the people who live in the town, while the paths the town planners put in are generally ignored.

Which says a lot about town planning.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this to be honest, except that it struck me again yesterday that it is such a shame that we are ignoring the beauty of the small towns we have, and yes, I do think Victorian industrial landscapes can be beautiful, in favour of knocking everything down and putting up huge monoliths of consumerism that destroy towns and make them nothing more than a series of roads that take you to supermarkets with houses dotted in between them.  This is not what a town should be.

Let’s campaign for town planners who follow those desire paths.

Maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.

I’m turning into Prince Charles aren’t I?

2 responses to “The paths of desire

  1. I am very fond of the French version of that phrase: chemins du desir.

  2. I am covertly a fan of that aspect of Prince Charles myself. I haven’t seen the world’s largest hockey stick, but I am not surprised it is in Canada. I remember seeing the world’s biggest nickel on a hellish cross-country drive when I was 12.
    One of my favourite redevelopments is in Toronto’s Distillery District. They have put in some condos (which are less hideous than most) on the outside, but the key is that there are lots of pedestrian areas and unique shops with artists that work there, and galleries, and pubs and restaurants with patios, and a theatre, and artists selling stands at the weekend, and my fave coffee shop, Balzacs. They have left all of the lovely Victorian industrial brick architecture and thrown in some modern sculpture for good measure. http://www3.thedistillerydistrict.com
    NB: the youtube link is pretty sales-y, but the pics give a good idea of what it’s like.

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