Near the beginning of a book I read as a child—I was sure it was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but just now I couldn’t find it there—there’s a passage on topography. The author says that if she (or he) forgot everything in her old age, first losing names and faces, and then losing the events of her own life, the last thing that would stay with her would be the shape of the land she knew best. She’d remember the pattern of the hills, valleys, and slopes after everything else had gone.
That idea impressed me because it was so alien. I realised when I read it that I didn’t have any sense of how the contours around my house or my school fitted together, underneath the roads and trees and buildings. It had probably never previously occurred to me that there was a continuous shape to the land below the pavement, or that people might be interested in or appreciate those curves and gradients.
I still have terrible spatial awareness and no sense of direction, but I’ve certainly walked a long way, not all of it whilst inattentive or lost, since then. One of the great luxuries of my adult life has been that I’ve spent virtually all of it living within walking distance of a university at which I was working or studying. I’ve got to know the contours of all of those walks.
I moved house a few weeks ago, into an old house in an old village on a hill. The hill is a squareish mass of Carboniferous sandstone that slopes from north-west to south-east. The streams that run down it on either side evidently once met in a little valley, a northerly spur of the valley of the Aire. (The Aire is one of the great mill-turning rivers of the nineteenth century, carrying water eastwards from the Pennines through the Yorkshire coal country into the Vale of York.) The city that began in that valley, at a river crossing, has long since absorbed the village on the hill, and its suburbs run north for another mile or so. At the ring road, the geology changes. The Yorkshire coal measures yield to older, higher gritstone, a low easterly flank of the Pennine uplands themselves.
My university is on another hill, the promontory of a lower and longer spur of ground that stretches southwards to the edge of the city’s centre. Between the hill on which I live and the hill on which I work, a beck has cut a steep-sided valley. There’s a beloved straggle of public woodland on one side of it. My walk between them is two miles long, made longer by the need to skirt the southern edge of the wood, and evenly split by the beck. It descends 150 feet, then regains 120 (or on the way home, the reverse): enough to be laborious with a couple of books in my bag, even before I try it in a winter coat.
The thing that most reconciles me to that minor daily inconvenience is that the beck that carved through the valley is visible beneath a bridge at the lowest point of the journey, confined in a narrow channel at the back of a cluster of light-industrial buildings (steel product suppliers, metalworkers, garage doors, heavy recycling). It’s a reminder that the gradients aren’t unreadable. The extra effort in my morning walk is the result of an earth-historical process, a decipherable sequence of upthrust and erosion, forces and flows. A walk uphill is a geological act: we have always lived in geological time.