Afternoon Dust

Circling Around (Without Taking Off)

A field with a haystack near Birmingham International Airport

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I joined a group of mutual strangers in the middle of the concourse at Birmingham New Street station for a walk around Birmingham International Airport. The event formed part of the annual Still Walking festival, and was conceived by Bruno de Wachter, who had already organised walks around five other European airports. Bruno’s idea, looking at the way airports are represented on maps as blank white spaces, was that they are essentially ‘holes’ in the landscape — and how else to describe a hole but to circumnavigate it?

So off we went, on a grey, drizzly September day that was supposed to brighten up but never did, following public footpaths and bridleways while cleaving as close as possible to the ‘hole’ in the map. It was one of the rules of the event that we did not speak of, nor turn towards, nor give any indication of having noticed the thing that we were circumnavigating, such that the hole in the map became a hole in our experience. Visually, this was not a difficult task to accomplish, as the land we passed through was largely rural and quite pretty in places, despite the damp gloom it was drenched in. Unfortunately, while it’s easy to avert your eyes and watch your mouth, the ears are harder to close or to filter; the sound always tells you where you are.

Our roughly circular route was meant to be about ten miles long, but in the end was more like twelve. Being reasonably active, and having cycled further than this the previous weekend with no ill effects, I’d assumed I’d be ok. By the time we reached our lunch stop at Bracey’s Garden Centre a little less than half way round, it was beginning to dawn on me that walking may involve different muscles to cycling, and that those muscles were slightly less prepared than I’d hoped. The last couple of miles were pretty miserable, and I could tell from the tired faces and terse conversation that at least some of my fellow walkers were feeling similarly exhausted. I was very glad to climb onto the train back home at the end of the route.

We met at a café the next day to reflect on our experiences, and it turned out that Bruno had a very specific, beautifully poetic idea about how he wanted to document the walk. I took some photos of the final result, and then realised that I couldn’t share them without risking spoiling the surprise for walkers on future editions of Circling Around (Without Taking Off), as Bruno had named it. At a sharing session later that week, several people who hadn’t been on the walk noted the sense of camaraderie that had developed between the walkers, and it’s true that a bond had grown out of the experience (and mild suffering) we shared that wasn’t immediately obvious from the artwork we produced together. Of the walk itself, a handful of brief images have stayed with me over the ensuing fortnight, imprinted on my memory like the photographs I didn’t take. These images and relationships are like holes in the map of our discourse, circumscribed but not charted.

Bruno de Wachter
Still Walking festival

I don’t know who took the photo, sorry!