Walking the Edge: The interstitiality of the Blackwater Valley Path

The familiar brown wayfinding signs of the Blackwater Valley Path, with the blue route markers in the bottom right corner

I’ve lived in the Blackwater Valley area for nearly a decade now, and as a keen runner and walker, I have frequently come across the wayfinding infrastructure of the Blackwater Valley Path. It became one of those ritualistic things whereby I would mentally log that I needed to research the path when I got back home, but as per usual, the task slipped from memory as the drudgery of the fog of daily life kicked back in after the mental clarity of a run. So it’s little surprise to be honest that it has taken nearly ten years (9 years, and 6 months 2 weeks and 3 days to be precise) to finally research the route, get up to fitness and most difficult, find a spare day to walk the whole 23 miles of the Blackwater Valley Path.

But why did I feel so drawn to it? What is it about a relatively random collection of pathways that have been transformed and manicured by the good folk at the Blackwater Valley Countryside Trust from a site of industrialised landscape extraction to a network of middle-class leisure and residential pursuits over the last 40 years or so? The answer is simply ‘because geography’. Or perhaps more disciplinarily, cultural geography.

The Path, as the official history suggests, was conjured by a group of conservationists, volunteers and active residents to ‘rescue’ a site of industrial wreckage, into a network of nature reserves which people and wildlife alike can enjoy. But walking the Path today (although admittedly the southern half far more than the northern), those ‘residues’ of industrial activity are actively present, creating to me a fascinating geographical landscape that cannot be easily ‘captured’ by those ‘off-the-shelf’ metanarratives that are so abundant these days. It’s not conservationist, industrial, suburban, natural, urban, ecological, infrastructural, atmospheric, networked; it’s all of things but yet none. It is best described by what Marion Shoard has now so famously called ‘edgelands‘. Described as an “anarchic mix of unloved land-use functions ranging from gravel workings to sewage disposal plants set in a scruffy mixture of unkempt fields, derelict industrial plant and miscellaneous wasteland”, edgelands are now a staple part of the vernacular of psychogeographers and town planners alike. Indeed, that description that Shoard proffered two decades ago is still strikingly apt for the Blackwater Valley Path.

Below is an open source Google map of the Path by ‘The Walking Englishman’ and if you’re so inclined, you can peruse the ‘realtime’ Twitter thread that I curated while I was walking here.

So, as someone who uses walking, ethnography and psychogeographic methods fairly liberally in my research, you can now see why this Path was calling me. So on the 1st August 2022 – a date I had finally managed to carve out of the diary – I set off from the southern most start point of the Path: the source of the Blackwater River.

The source of the Blackwater River: a tiny spring in among the dense foliage and trees

I’m not going to describe every section of the walk: largely because to capture the beautiful nuances of the quotidian ‘edge-iness’ of the Path would require a book length endeavour rather than a blog post. But it is that ‘edge-iness’, the Path’s interstitial state between (and not of) industrial, residential, natural, manicured, agricultural, suburban and infrastructural landscapes that was so striking. You can flick through the gallery below to see some of the visual ‘highlights’, but as (pretty much) the entirety of the Southern half follows the River as it meanders alongside the A331 Truck road, the aural ‘highlights’ are just as visceral.

The Path intersects with, and is part a variety of infrastructures that, to me, are the most geographically and ‘edgy’ of the whole walk. It criss-crosses the A331 at various points, and at some small sections, you are forced to walk right beside the thundering road traffic. With that to your left, and gas works and other industrial dins to your right, there was a very intense feeling – visually and aurally – of walking on the edge at times.

As I walked under motorways (the M3), over rail lines, across main dual carriageways, past the backyards of suburban summer tranquility and children’s joviality, passed derelict underground car parks, through town shops, by business park workers eating their lunches by some ‘public’ art, around the stentchy sewage works, through vast construction planes, and many other sites of infrastructural hauntings, I couldn’t shake the feeling of falling from one landscape into another constantly. With every turn, I found myself sandwiched between competing geographical narratives; like a Mievillian protagonist, I was buffeted between worlds, enraptured by the irreducibility of the environments that briefly ensnared me.

The Path’s northern half gives way to more manicured nature reserves, water recreation centres, and then onto the parched, sun-bleached agricultural landscapes of farms and wheat fields; finally ending up in the rather wealthy, guarded and unwelcoming surroundings of little Berkshire/Hampshire villages and hamlets. So as you can probably tell, to me this was the more arduous part of the Path (although the Mill Ford which had young children and dogs swimming in it on a very warm summers’ afternoon was achingly enticing). Ending in the sleepy hamlet of Swallowfield, it is perhaps fitting of the Path’s transect from the gloriously democratic publicness of pure interstitiality to the monoculture of rural affluence, that the final few hundred meters of the Blackwater River’s journey as a tributary into the River Loddon is gated behind signs shouting ‘Private Land: Keep Out’. But a transect the Path most definitely is: a slice through all the various geographies the world has to offer.

As the wonderful Jennie Middleton (among many others) has written about, walking is a fundamental part of geographical scholarship. Of course being acutely aware of the classist, gendered, racist and ablist tropes that are bundled into all that, the psychogeographical intensities of walking a deliberately-manicured yet still deviantly-edgy 23 mile stretch of river Path are acutely evident. Even the materiality of my own body began to become very edgy as blisters began to appear, my legs began to ache and the heat of the afternoon saw me dash into a shop and then a pub to fill up my increasingly vanishing drinking water. But despite all that, there is something so deeply geographical about the Path that I was so compelled to write this post. I suspect that health and safety being what it is, I would be unable to march my students 23 miles in one day (and if Clare the health & safety officer in my dept is reading this – nor would I want to!) but if you’re wanting to experience – interstitially, intermittently, but always intimately – the wonderful variety of cultural geographic landscapes that this fair country of mine has to offer, then you could do worse that walking the Blackwater Valley Path.

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