Learn Psychogeography with the Strange London Circle Walk

Guy Debord (center), bored by the dozens in attendance at the third conference of the Situationist International in Munich, April 1959. (Credit: Giorgio Maffei/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Don’t look up ‘psychogeography’. Time and again you come across Guy Debord, the Marxist theorist who coined the term in 1955; the Situationist International, the avant-garde movement that tried to popularize the concept; and mandatory jargon like stroller, derivative and robinsonade.

If you persist in your research, you will fall down a rabbit hole of mid-century French social, political and philosophical theory from which you can say that no one comes out completely unscathed. Rather, think of it as what the term itself promises: the intersection of psychology and geography.

But don’t confuse it with geopsychology – a different concept at the same intersection, but at a different angle, so to speak. Geopsychology studies robust, fixed links between landscape and personality, while psychogeography is more concerned with the fluidity of moods and impressions.

What the hell is psychogeography?

Psychogeography examines how landscape affects the mind and how the mind reflects the landscape. This landscape is often the built environment of a city. The research method is often simply a random walk.

Practice, not theory, is the best way to experience what psychogeography is all about. The crucial part is the “randomness” of your walk. It must be aimless. That’s a tricky balancing act, and there are few better examples of this than the upcoming London Circle Walk.

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The London Circle Walk is a route that follows, as closely as the city’s buildings and streets allow, a perfect circle around the center of the British capital. On September 10, Michael Brunström, co-creator of the Walk, will lead a group along the route, starting at 10:00 AM from the center of Tower Bridge.

“This is a challenging full day adventure as the route is over 20 miles,” he writes on the hike’s Facebook page. “Don’t forget to bring suitable footwear and waterproof clothing, and provisions to keep you going. We will stop somewhere in Kensington for lunch.”

The walking tour is estimated to take approximately nine hours, ending in the early evening where it began, at Tower Bridge. Like many of the world’s biggest (and dumbest) ideas, the London Circle Walk was born in a pub.

The London Circle Walk up close. The exact route is subject to change, due to subtle but constant changes to the layout of London itself. The ed point in the center represents the equestrian statue of Charles I. (Credit: Tingtinglongtingtingfala / Michael Brunström. Graphic editing: Ruland Kolen)

“(Tim Wilson and I) were several pints in the conversation, and for reasons unknown we discussed the work of country artist Richard Long, who took art to groundbreaking conceptual realms by calling a walk ‘art’, and who is best known for his the circles and straight lines he would draw across stretches of countryside, both in the UK and across the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia,” writes Mr Brunström.

‘What would happen, we wondered, if we put a compass on a map of London? How much zigzag would you have to do to walk as close to an imaginary circle on the ground as possible? What would we encounter along the way?”

A curious cartographic artifact

And the rest, as they say, is psychogeographic history. The London Circle was born. It is a curious cartographic artifact, mixing randomness with predestination. It is centered on the equestrian statue of Charles I, who sits on a traffic island south of Trafalgar Square.

The bronze likeness of the king, which is overshadowed by Nelson’s Column, is easily overlooked. Nevertheless, the monument occupies a memorable position. Several roads lead out from this point, including three of major importance: the Mall (towards Buckingham Palace), the Strand (towards the city) and Whitehall (towards Parliament). This convergence of royal, commercial and political power has long been considered the centerpiece of London, and not just symbolic. A plaque at the site informs visitors that “miles of London are measured from” [this] website.”

The factual Greater London’s midpoint is a mile to the south east, at Greet House on Frazier Street, near Lambeth North tube station – at least according to this article – but as a sort of zero, King Charles (or the rear of his horse) will do good, at least for purposes of psychogeography.

“A celebration of geography and hiking.” (Credit: @Sarah_Hants / Twitter)

The circle’s radius, meanwhile, was chosen as the best match with places to cross the Thames, namely Tower Bridge to the east and Albert Bridge to the west. Since its “invention” many years ago, Michael and his co-inventor Tim have walked the route many times, agreeing that, for both aesthetic and practical reasons, clockwise is the best direction, and that Tower Bridge is the best way to go. ideal point is to start and end the run .

“It’s fascinating to see what happens when an abstract geometric shape is superimposed on an urban landscape,” says Mr Brunström. “(You) you are forced to think about cities in a different way, following a route that normally no one would take. As a walker you are both bound by the restrictions of the route (no deviation from the circle!) and liberated from the too beaten paths that others have walked.”

A route with an almost “ritual quality”

“The route has almost a ritual character. You cannot help but become aware of time and space, observing the linear passage of the sun through the sky as you yourself make a symbolic journey through a cyclic universe encoded in the microcosm.”

The London Circle Walk samples a wide variety of varied neighborhoods of London including but not limited to: the Old Kent Road, New Covent Garden in Nine Elms, the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens, Paddington Station, the Marylebone Flyover, Regent’s Canal, London Central Mosque, the heart of Camden Town and Petticoat Lane.

London Circle Walkers pass through some of the poorest areas of London as well as some of the richest. The walk also includes “a bus garage, a museum, a university, a giraffe enclosure, a hospital, a high-security police station, and a theater… It is made of concrete, water, grass, brick glass, tree, steel, and earth. It passes through at least 50 pubs. And below street level, generations of souls lie amid fields, streets and houses long gone from view, not to mention an even older geology and hydrology.”

The route stays as close as possible to the perfect curve of its ideal shape, meaning it “walks tantalizingly close to great well-known monuments, which it gleefully ignores.”

Shortcuts are possible in some places. They bring walkers closer to the geometric circle, but “all (these shortcuts) involve a certain amount of daring and/or illegality: hire a boat to take you across Battersea Park boat lake; bribe a guard to let you out of the emergency exit at the back of the Natural History Museum; bring a ladder to break into London Zoo. A team of parkour enthusiasts could cut miles off the total distance.”

It is unclear whether that would still be in accordance with the principles of psychogeography as defined by Debord and practiced by the Situationists. But it sounds like a lot more fun than one of their encounters.

Morning breaks over the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, one of the fortuitous sights on the path of the London Circle Walk. (Credit: George Johnson, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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