Saturday, 19 January 2013

The silent city (grit free pleasure)

What I wanted to chat about in this posting was "The Silent City" No; not some post apocalyptic zombie film or the town of Mdina, but the west country city of Bristol.
Like most of the UK yesterday Bristol was covered in a thick layer of snow. Bristol City Council are renowned for their lack of gritting effort, which considering this is a very hilly city makes for some atrocious driving conditions. I'm sure this is a reflection of their desire to make this a car free city. I have no problem with that, as long as they grit the roads to allow the buses to run. Car free is admirable, and inability to get to work is lamentable. I once drove from Newcastle to Bristol in thick snow, every road on that 300 mile journey to the perimeter of the City was easily drivable. I then passed the South Gloucestershire boundary mark and within a few miles the whole place became gridlocked. Took me three hours to do the last mile to work. I'd have walked but I had a car crammed with kit so couldn't leave it.

However because of this lack of gritting yesterday it made me realise what cities could be like without the car, something as a child of the Sixties, I have never known. All the photographs for this comment were taken at 2pm when the roads were beginning to clear of snow, but even then they were empty of traffic. In the morning however because no roads were gritted, the City fell eerily silent. Trains were running, but all buses had been cancelled and all other transport had heeded the warnings to stay at home. My 40 minute walk from Bristol Temple Meads train station (and back when these images were taken) was absolutely fantastic.

Because there was no traffic, except the odd driver braving the roads, as I walked I could hear and feel the silence around me. Silence is something a big city can never experience these days. Usually walking to and from the station I am either enveloped in a carcinogenic fog or dodging endless traffic while trying to cross a road. It is often a harrowing experience. But not so on January 18th 2013.
As I walked I could hear birds singing. Above that children, and a few adults, chatting, laughing, playing snowball fights, building snowmen. Everywhere people walked, walked and walked, like a reenactment of an L.S.Lowry painting was being staged. We didn't worry about the traffic, there wasn't any. We just walked in the silence and that silence was deafening, but also so so therapeutic. This is what cities should be about!

The second photograph on this posting is Whitladies Road in Clifton at 2pm. Usually this is a slow moving carpark of traffic either heading into or out of the City. Not yesterday. It was eerily quiet. People walking could cross on a zebra crossing or at lights without a care in the world. It was so fantastic I felt like running along a road just because I could. As I stopped to compose these photographs I had a few people stop and say "isn't this lovely this snow is magical" or "isn't the city quiet". On a normal work day everyone is heads down shuffling to their appointed destination without a care of the environment they tread. Yesterday however the transformation was astonishing. We looked up, we heard and we saw.

Even on the train as I headed home again, which was delayed by 15 minutes because of the weather, people were chatting. One woman on hearing the train would be delayed just said "ohh well its the weather, what can you expect" and then struck up a conversation with a complete stranger about how beautiful Bristol looked today. He chipped in with an observation that he came from Taunton and he was the only one of his office to make it to work today. His colleagues all drove in to the office from Bristol and couldn't make it, so his manager had sent him home - presumably with a gold star and impending bonus for good behaviour.

The weather (and to a part Bristol Council's inability to cope) did a miraculous thing yesterday. It allowed the people to reclaim the City for people, just for a few hours. For millennia cities have been places of and places for people; gathering for commerce and employment cities grew into chaotic vibrant and above all human scale places to live. Vice and crime rubbed shoulders with commerce, culture and housing. The outer boundaries of our biggest cities was less than the distance a man could walk in half a day, as he needed to walk back in the evening. Indeed I have a book covering the history of stage coach travel. In 1800 Hyde Park Corner in London was just that, the corner of the street where one road split to Bath, the other South. Here market gardens and farms prospered feeding the Nations Capital.

Just fifty or 60 years ago all that changed, with the arrival of the combustion engine in a form that allowed the masses to buy cars. Just think about it. When our grandparents were born, no one owned a car. Okay a few wealthy people did, but everyone lived close by their place of work as they either walked, or got the train or bus. My father talks of the 1950's when he began working after school, lines of buses travelling between South Shields and Newcastle became more like a club. Each day everyone would get on at the same place and they'd chat like old friends. If one person missed the bus, they'd either tell the driver to stop or a great discussion would develop, "where are they" But since the 1960's, the car has taken over. 
There is no doubt it the car is a fantastic invention, no other transport allows A to B movement so efficiently. But this efficiency of the car is also the cities downfall. We as a society have become isolated. Because we can travel huge distances now from home to work, our cities are expanding at a rate never seen before into the countryside and we now live a long way from our places of work. I work with people in an office who in an evening are nearly 120 miles apart from each other once at home. Society thrived on living and working in the same town or city as it allowed people to mix and socialise with work colleagues, or friends of friends all within a short distance of each other, day and night, and importantly on a human scale.
My parents never worried about a little bit of snow; as my mother said only last night, in the winter when it snowed, such as in 1963 she walked the 2 miles to work and back again every day, never even crossed her mind not to turn up.  Today the slightest sign of snow and the country grinds to a halt because we rely 100% on the car in the main. I remember talking to a chap who had moved from Newcastle to the wilds of Northumberland years ago. A 45 mile drive each way. He loved it, but like we said, give a good hard winter like we used to get and it'll be fun. I wonder how he has coped these last few years.
And I do wonder what will happen when fuel runs out. Will we start moving back into cities, which in a way is already happening in a few places, because lets be honest who wants to spend 3 hours a day commuting? I often drive along motorways and think how many years will it take for nature to reclaim these structures after the last car has passed along it. Sitting in our tin boxes we will know more about the presenter on Radio 5 Live than the man sitting in the car next to us at the traffic lights. And that is why society is fragmented and isolated. We do not have a connection with where we work, where we play, or where we travel through.
But if we were on a bus or walking, there is just a chance we may chat to pass the time. For the first time in history, as a pedestrian in a city we are an alien species in an alien environment. And that is sad. Maybe Bristol Council after all have the right idea, a car free city. As I walked the quiet streets of Bristol yesterday listening to the birdsong, the children laughing, people chatting, I thought, I am part of a community here, a community surrounded by its environment. Bristol was not an aggressive noisy rush rush city yesterday, it was calm, silent and on a human scale. I doubt I shall experience this feeling again though as on most days I see nothing nor hear anything of the City as I drive by in my perfect efficient transport.
We'll never go back to cities being for the people while we have combustion engines, but maybe, just maybe when the petrol runs out in about 75 years we can once again quote from Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities, the city slept it's silent sleep.....in silence.
“Other sound than the owl's voice there was none, save the falling of a fountain into its stone basin; for, it was one of those dark nights that hold their breath by the hour together, and then heave a long low sigh, and hold their breath again.” 


  1. nice blog!! cities with no cars are bliss

  2. One day Pete we may see those cities return!!

  3. Lovely photos Andrew and a very thought-provoking post. Love the quote from Dickens :)

    Hope you manage to go birding with Mr Moss some time soon. Am really enjoying the book and reading about the delights to be found and observed in a local patch.

  4. I love those magical moments when no industrial sounds intrude. They are oases in our busy, noisy lives.