Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Know your city

A recent visit to London reminded me that I wasted twenty years living there and never managed to get as far west as Richmond Park, and though I visited Greenwich many times I never got as far as the Queen's House. It's not just me - most people seriously underuse their own cities, and while they pay good money to fly off somewhere else, don't know what's hidden under their own noses.

There are several ways to wake people up to their surroundings. Several of my friends now look forward to the Heritage Days in September when many wonderful sites not normally open to the public have open days - I took advantage of one to explore the Hanseatic city of King's Lynn, while Norwich opens the Great Hospital, St Mary Coslany (now a huge book warehouse), medieval undercrofts and half-timbered houses. London Open House is another effort well worth attending - I particularly want to get to the Mughal style garden on top of the Ismaili centre in South Kensington.

But you can also play games. A favourite of mine - stemming from the actor's need for superstitions (anything can go wrong on stage, so the more 'lucky knickers', not-mentioning-the-Scottish-play, crossed fingers, black cats, and so on you've got, the more protected you feel) is to walk from A to B (house to theatre) a different way each day. The first three or four days are easy; after that, you have to investigate back doubles, tiny alleyways, cuts through churchyards or parks or courtyards - and before you know where you are, you've found surprises; a thatched house in the middle of the city, a house with viol-players on the door-knockers, a set of tiny steps up what you'd never realised was actually quite a steep hill,  a secondhand shop with a display of old beer bottles in the window.

Go at a different time. Go out late at night instead of in the day to see things differently. Go early in the morning before everyone is up and watch the early deliveries roll in.

Look at the backs of buildings, not the front. In parts of Norwich, that gets you into the old courts, with their half-timbered and brick houses clustered round the courtyard; in New Town Edinburgh it shows you the mews, humble stableyards and cottages tucked in behind the high Georgian houses; in other places you can see how the street frontage preserves an orderly atmosphere, but the back is a higgledy-piggledy mass and mess of lean-tos and extensions.

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