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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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149.  Wayfinding and the Highfields

After several gloomy days, a cheerful sky lured me out, but it wasn’t cheerful enough to lure me far. I walked across the River Lune for a loop through the Highfields (Far, Middle and Lower) on the opposite bank. This is familiar terrain, which has the disadvantage that I would probably find little new to say about it but the advantage that I didn’t really need a map to make sure that I didn’t lose my way.

This tenuous link enables me to mention that I’ve been reading Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way (Bond, 2020). This book contains a lot of fascinating facts about how the brain enables us to keep our bearings and emphasises how important this ability is in our lives. Here I would like to mention just three of the scientific results that are reported. They seem robust and to have an important conclusion. The first result is:
When it comes to wayfinding people tend to fall into one of two groups: they either prefer to use (physical or mental) maps – or they prefer to follow directions (remembered or told to them).
I will call the two groups ‘mappers’ and ‘followers’. Mappers apply a ‘spatial’ approach in which they rely on features of the landscape and how they relate to one another to tell them where they are. Followers apply an ‘egocentric’ approach, whereby they relate everything to their own position. Ordinarily, people will opt for their preferred strategy but in some situations it may not be possible. For example, a mapper summoned to a meeting in a large, unfamiliar building may well temporarily become a follower – ‘take the lift to the tenth floor, turn right, and the meeting room is 200 yards on the left’.

On this walk I set off hearing the great tits making quite a noise, optimistically anticipating spring. After crossing Waterworks Bridge and walking through Aughton Wood, I emerged on the floodplain within the great meander of the Lune. Here a digger was in position, excavating holes – but it wasn’t doing so today, so I wandered over to see what it was up to. I couldn’t work out the purpose at all. These fields are under water several times a year. dry Barkin Beck

Right: The River Lune from Waterworks Bridge, with a faint Ingleborough in the distance

Above the village of Aughton I checked the map just to be sure that I didn’t miss the footpath below High Barn. I expect that most walkers are mappers. Certainly, I am. I don’t use any modern electronic technology to find my way around on my walks. I always walk with an OS map in the backpack but I expect to leave it there. Before the walk I copy on to an A4 sheet the relevant part of the map and fold it so that one-eighth of it is visible (the part that I am walking on). As I walk along, I can fetch the map from my pocket to check the fine detail of the walk in a couple of seconds, hardly breaking my stride. I have found that I have developed the ability, when glancing at the map, to remember my route quite far ahead (as a good orienteer does, I’m sure). This, I think, is a legacy of running around with a map stuffed in my shorts. As a runner, you want to get into a rhythm and not have to keep stopping to check the route every few yards. So, as I walk along, I have a fairly detailed mental map of the route ahead.

The second experimental result from Wayfinding is:
Mappers tend to have larger hippocampi than followers.
This is a generalisation of the famous study of London taxi-drivers which found that they had larger hippocampi than normal. It has been found that the strategies of mappers and followers exercise different parts of the brain. Mappers mostly use the hippocampus, a part of the brain which plays an important role in memory, including spatial memory to enable navigation. Followers mostly use the caudate nucleus, which is involved in movement control and the learning of habitual behaviours. People have more grey matter in those organs which they exercise during wayfinding.

The path through the Highfields is a delightfully airy one, with excellent views across to Caton Moor and its windmills and, up the valley, to the hills of the Dales, although on this occasion it was rather grey with a few clouds scudding over the hills. The path is actually better walked in the opposite direction to mine, so that the Dales view is ahead. Far Highfield (with its prominent aerial) and Lower Highfield are active farms but Middle Highfield has evolved into quite a hamlet. The path at Lower Highfield seems to have changed from what I remember and from what is shown on the map. dry Barkin Beck

Right: The rather gloomy view across to Caton Moor, with the windmills in cloud

The third experimental result is:
People with larger hippocampi than normal are less likely to develop dementia and similar problems as they age.
It isn’t always the case that an enlarged organ is a good thing but it seems that an enlarged hippocampus (at least one enlarged by active use rather than some physical deformity) has its benefits. As is well known, the hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and a decline in spatial reasoning is one of its first symptoms.

The path through the wood beyond Lower Highfield was a little challenging to negotiate because several large trees had recently been blown over. Emerging from the wood, I felt somewhat lacking in enthusiasm to carry on, as one ought to, past Halton Park and the Crook o’Lune. Instead, I cut the walk short by dropping down across fields and through a wood to the river. I should remind readers that these Saunterings are never intended to be recommendations. If you should choose to trespass then that is up to you. There were no livestock or crops in the fields, and no harm was done, except when some barbed wire took a liking to my trousers.

Putting the three results from Wayfinding together would seem to lead to the conclusion:
Mappers are less likely than followers to develop dementia and similar problems.
I hope so. As Bond (2020, p93) puts it, “Navigating spatially by studying the lie of the land and picturing where you are in relation to where you want to be … is the road to cognitive riches”. To put the conclusion negatively, followers – such as those that rely on GPS devices to tell them where to go – are more likely to develop dementia than mappers. GPSs are too new for this negative effect to have been confirmed by experimental studies but the conclusion seems to follow. As the Wayfinding book discusses, there are other more subtle and more profound reasons to be wary of GPS devices, since they further loosen the evolutionarily important association that we developed with our environment and may lead us to be uninterested in our physical and mental place in the world and indeed in the world itself. So I’m content to stick with the old-fashioned paper map in my pocket. dry Barkin Beck

Right: The River Lune and Caton Moor windmills, in late sunshine

Would you say that our governmental leaders are mappers or followers? Leaders should be on the way somewhere – but it seems that ours are only trying to find a way to bluster through the next day. I promised in 94 (June 3rd 2020) that Saunterings would be a politics-free zone. Despite provocations, I have done my best in that regard but it isn’t possible to carry out any activity, even walking, in a complete vacuum, ignoring what is happening in the world.

In 93 (May 24th 2020) I had written “I have become increasingly saddened, depressed and angered by the growing death-toll of the pandemic and by the callous, lying incompetence of our politicians – and the thought that we are stuck with them and possibly it for some time.” I feel much the same today. But what did I know? I didn’t know that four days before there had been a ‘bring your own booze’ party in Downing Street or that our prime minister would soon be having a birthday party or that, nearly a year later, there would be Downing Street parties during a time of national mourning … and on and on. England is lost.

    Date: January 27th 2022
    Start: SD543644, Brookhouse  (Map: OL41)
    Route: N – Waterworks Bridge – NE – Aughton Barns – N, W, SW – Far Highfield, Middle Highfield, Lower Highfield, through wood – S – River Lune – E – Waterworks Bridge – S – Brookhouse
    Distance: 6 miles;   Ascent: 150 metres

     150.   Psychogeographic Walking around Burnley
     148.   The Man on the Clapham Omnibus …
               A list of all Saunterings so far

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-


Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell