Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sense of Direction

I’ll be straight with you.  A sense of direction is something that I’ve never had.  My intuitive notion of North and South and where landmarks are in relation to each other has always been very bad.  I can get lost in relatively familiar places back in Blighty, so transplant me to a different country with a different set up and I’m bound to struggle, even with the simple stuff.

Most US towns and cities follow a grid layout, which is all very simple and rational, so it should be easy, except that I still manage to get confused – mainly because I over-complicate matters. 

Gainesville - Straight lines and 90 degree corners

Back in England road networks in towns can follow almost any pattern.  In a large town or city, the roads will usually extend out like the spokes of a wheel, but then there are other roads connecting the spokes in an essentially random fashion, so the overall effect is often something resembling a drunken spider’s web. 

Over the years I gradually developed my own idiosyncratic methods of finding my way around English towns and cities.  The trick is generally to link together landmarks and road names and gradually build up a kind of mental map.  Because I like a drink or two, I often picked pubs as my landmarks.  British pubs are unique institutions, different to bars, they traditionally function as social and community centres, as well as drinking holes, and you will find at least one in pretty much every city suburb, town neighbourhood, or village, so they make effective markers.* 

But orientating yourself via pubs is completely useless as a navigation method in the US.  For one thing, there is no real equivalent of a pub here in Florida (although some of the Irish bars make an attempt).

Leeds - Drunken Spider's Web

 Grid systems have numbered, rather than named streets like you get in Britain.  Numbers are definitely easier for travelling in that you can work out which direction you are heading by whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing in size, but I can also find specific numbers easy to forget.  Somehow names are always more memorable.  Back in my home town there are streets with names like “The Shambles”, “Captain French Lane”, and “Gillingate”, all of which conjure up mental images of one sort or another, just through the sound of them.  A number is just a number.  If someone says they live on “Serpentine Road”, I have more chance of remembering it than, “27th Avenue”.  (Having said that, I will, of course, have a good idea where 27th Avenue is on the grid, whereas I would have absolutely zero notion of the location of Serpentine Road, unless I’ve been there before!)

The Auld Grey Town where I grew up

Florida is also very flat and the buildings are generally all single storey (apart from the very biggest cities where they do have high rises).  The North of England is very hilly and so you will often find yourself at a vantage point, able to gain a panoramic view from a high spot.  In Cumbria, or much of Yorkshire, you can navigate quite easily by your relative position to a hill, as many towns are built in valleys.  It’s a similar situation with tall buildings, I almost always knew where I was in Leeds relative to the city centre, because you can see the office towers and university buildings from miles away.

Basically, I’ve had to learn to drop all the idiosyncratic methods for locating myself, and just read the street numbers, which is what I’ve done, but I do sometimes miss the eccentricities of travel in England.

*Sadly, the traditional British pub has been in decline for the past ten years or more.  They are closing down at an alarming rate. 

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