Describing Places: A Small Act of Giving

The following article by Tristan Gooley was first published in The Idler Magazine in early 2016.

Many years ago, a good friend and I were on a long walk when we reached the outskirts of the achingly artisanal Hebden Bridge, in Yorkshire. Our arrival was greeted with one of the worst smells I have ever encountered, and I have two sons. We pulled our shirts up over our noses and then, when this failed to screen out the stench, we resorted to pulling our hats down over our faces to offer one more filter between the funk and our airways. Struggling to breath, we were now walking blind, barely able to see between the hat fibres. We soon found ourselves harassing innocent walls, bumping into parked cars and then staggering across the road. Our moans were audible above the horns of the traffic we were now holding up.

Ten minutes passed before we emerged from the fetor and were able to breathe freely again. We lifted our visors to find ourselves in a café, confronted by a bearded barista – a harrowing and prescient Shoreditchian moment. Calming ourselves with a pair of double-espressos, we made some effort to describe accurately the smell we had barely survived. It felt a necessary therapeutic exercise. The summary read like this, ‘A pair of dead horses, left to rot on a compost heap for two weeks; then covered, but only lightly, with human faeces, before being thoroughly warmed by a three day heat wave.’ We never learned the true cause of the smell and we were not as curious as we might have been; its recollection makes us wretch to this day.

I recount this tale of putrefaction because for some reason – perhaps memory loss due to olfactory onslaught – we struggled for a long time to remember the name of the otherwise gratifying town that is Hebden Bridge. For a decade we would refer to ‘the dead horse town in Yorkshire’, a name that identified the location for the two of us perfectly, but has never supplanted the traditional name on maps. It must have been a temporary phenomenon.

Since that episode, I have heard Hebden Bridge described with many different, and doubtless better, tags. It is ‘quirky’, ‘the creative hub of the north’, ‘yuppie hell’ and ‘lesbian nirvana’ (it has the highest number of lesbians per capita in Britain, apparently). It was also once damned with faint praise when it was voted ‘the 4th funkiest town in the world’. Funkiest? Surely the ‘nice personality’ of urban labels, even a decade ago when this semi-slander took place.

With each new epithet applied to Hebden Bridge, I learned something about the town. It was rarely profound, often random and occasionally prejudiced, but it cast at least a little light on some area of the town’s stage or its players. Without much conscience effort, I found myself collecting descriptors of Hebden Bridge; the town is, ‘bustling’, ‘a gateway to the Pennines’, ‘an ex-mill town’ and ‘near the burial place of Sylvia Plath’. Each of these on their own paints a very limited picture, but like any good collection, display a few together and we start to get a more interesting insight. There can be only one bustling mill-town for lesbians and only one funky, yuppie gateway to the Pennines.

This is a habit that has now spread and each time I hear a place I know described in conversation, my ears tune to the adjectives. Does the person reach for the same undusted labels or can they add a new one to my collection? If they do add one, I am always grateful, often to the point of smiling and nodding disconcertingly at strangers.

Familiar as I am with the philosophy behind The Idler, its blossoming organs and wariness of innovation, this is surely the sort of novelty that should be applauded. This is not a call to race around in a vapid endeavour to earn more money to buy more shiny new things in the patently bonkers belief that this brings happiness. This is a chance to slow down, think more about the places we know and uncover their hidden beauties and blemishes. We can then pass these on to friends in the form of a generous little parcel of a new label.

To this end, and if I may be permitted a Lord Cardigan moment, can I ask that we charge headlong together in a bid to never describe a place we know the same way twice? (It will be a little like Radio 4’s ‘Just a Minute’, but slower, more purposeful and less back-slappingly smug.) We will learn more about these places, our friends will learn more about these places and it will cost neither party a penny. Think of it as a small act of giving, one that blanks the economists and emits noxious fumes in the general direction of Christmas consumerism.

My early efforts in this area may have achieved little more than drawing attention to the rancid smell in one part of a town on a summer’s afternoon. But hirsute Hebden was not built in a day.

You will know you have begun to add meaningfully to this lexicon when your friends describe you as quirky one week, funky the next, and then, shortly after that, suggest that you might like to live in a place called Hebden Bridge.

Tristan Gooley is the author of award-winning and bestselling books about the outdoors, including The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs.