aka roadtrip from folkestone to margate
The Taxonomy of the Modern Road
The big shock, says photographer John Myers, was the new landscape that emerged from that clearance
(of industrial manufacturing enterprise during the 1980s)...of warehousing and logistics, and retail parks
and enterprise zones, and tarmac (and roundabouts)
Introduction - Why Roundabouts?
The French cultural anthropologist Marc Auge, has described the roundabout in terms as a kind of carousel and regatta.
Auge was mostly thinking of the large Parisian rond-points
of l'Etoile and La Bastille which are distinguished by their absence of road markings and which provide for a particular kind
of driving experience in which relative velocity and trajectory inform the drivers's choice.
The gyratory systems described by Auge provide for a kind of psychological shock to the driver and passengers deriving
from the force-effect of deflection...
so as to jolt the driver from the zombie-like dream-state associated with the endless highway and of segregated motorway driving.
Even the smaller roundabout provides a kind of deflection, or swerve away, from the usual trajectories of speed, associated with
the trunk road or by-pass. The displacement, or movement, of machine and driver is both anxiety inducing and also exciting
according to Michael Balint, and thus is fleetingly associated with feelings of desire... providing an exquisite form of
counterpoint to the monotony of the motorway.
The roundabout also provides for a small patch of nature to flourish within the unprepossessing context of tarmac and
vehicle emissions. Surprisingly and notwithstanding the evident dust and dirt associated with the road, nature appears
to thrive upon the roundabout. They seem to provide for an unexpected oasis in the middle of the road.
The roundabout therefore combines both physical entity and psychological phenomenon.
This combination of the prosaic and the sublime makes the roundabout especially interesting...
The route between Folkestone and Margate is not long. It's a little less than thirty miles between these two seaside
resorts in Kent. In this relatively short distance, across country the road nevertheless passes across a number of distinct
geographies: both physical and cultural...
The county of Kent is located in the south-east corner of England and is the nearest point, in Britain, to the European
landmass. Accordingly, the principal historical characteristics of the area are derived from its border status and its military
significance. Even today, these historical legacies are evident in the roman, medieval and Napoleonic fortifications that
distinguish the area. More recently, the area around Folkestone provided the base for the air defences during the
Battle of Britain 1940.
The social legacies attaching to this history remain a little more obscure but no less significant.
The Cinque-Port status of various seaside towns in East Kent ( Hythe, Dover, Sandwich) has given the local population
a distinct sense of proud independence. These feelings remains evident across the coal fields of East Kent, and their
associated villages, though which the road to Margate passes.
Our route begins in Folkestone, near Hythe, and passes through the Alkham Valley, before passing over the A2
and crossing East Kent to Sandwich. From there, the road goes north, past the Roman fort at Richborough
and thence climbs to Thanet.
The landscape through which the road passes remains largely agricultural until the area around Pegwell Bay,
which until recently was the site for the Richborough coal-fired power station. The buildings by the road are mostly late 20C.
There are a few Georgian farmhouses and Victorian buildings: but the majority of roadside development has come in the
last 50 years or so.
Nowadays, the modernisation of the road between Dover and Sandwich can be understood as providing a transport
corridor to support large scale housing developments on what was, until recently, mostly open farmland. In Thanet,
the road becomes increasingly cluttered around the retail sheds of Westwood Cross and its associated leisure facilities.
One of the entirely unintended characteristics of this modernisation is that the route between Folkestone and Margate
is distinguished by a LARGE number of traffic roundabouts.
We counted 29 of them. This is their story. There may be more now!
For most of its 1000 plus years of history outlined above, the landscapes of East Kent were negotiated at the relatively
sedate pace of foot, horse, bicycle and steam locomotive.
This changed dramatically in the period after WWl when there was the first large increase in motor traffic. The increase
in traffic volume and its speeding-up began as an entirely practical phenomenon that reflected the growth and diversity
of the post-war economy.
The poet John Betjeman was amongst the first to recognise that, alongside the evident practicalities of railway and motor car,
these technologies also held the power to transform the landscapes through which they passed into a neo-romantic
(psycho) geography that captured this experience through the combination of memory and feeling.
This romantic sensibility was a 20C re-casting of the aristocratic romanticism that had flourished at the beginning of the 19C,
and a powerful reminder of the unanswerable truth of our emotional engagement with environment.
The evident convenience of motor transport was enhance through this improving association with aristocratic sensibility:
especially as the speed of the motor car made a there-and-back engagement with the Arcadian picturesque something
that could be enjoyed simply and relatively inexpensively, and so as to return home in time for tea.
The place-markers documented conform to the traditional roadside church, inn and bridge.
In these circumstances, it's not surprising that a series of illustrated guidebooks for motorists were proposed.
These books were elaborated as a series of County Guides for Shell Petrol. The guides were in their earliest form, spiral bound
and photo-illustrated in black-and-white.
The Kent guide was amongst the first of these guides, published in 1935. The County's proximity to London made it easily
accessible to motor tourists. Betjeman was amongst the first to discover the coastal wilderness of Romney Marsh and
its distinctive maritime architecture. The artists Paul Nash and John Piper both explored aspects of this local strangeness.
For the film maker, Michael Powell, the landscape and geography of East Kent was familiar; he was born at Bekesbourne,
in the Stour Valley, near Canterbury. Powell remained sensitive to the increasing strangeness of the old ways
during this period of modernisation. These traditions remained rooted in the history and rhythms of the countryside and
provided, for Powell at least a powerful reminder of the past.
One of the great pleasures of travelling about East Kent is the opportunity to see the past from your motor car window.
In this case, amplified through visual reference to the paintings of Paul Nash and the films of Michael Powell.
Paul Nash would certainly have responded to the surrealist potential, and strangeness of the roundabout.
More recently, the Folkestone/Margate route has been marked, at both ends, by the sculptures of Anthony Gormley.
The modern traffic roundabout is usually identified as having originated, in Britain at least, at the Garden City of Letchworth.
The traffic roundabout was proposed as a device for managing intersections where traffic volumes were likely to cause
long delays. The roundabout was an attempt to keep traffic moving at a time when of increasing volume and speed of traffic.
The traffic roundabout was an early visible manifestation of the expansion of the machine ensemble at the beginning of the 20C.
The Garden City movement promoted the expansion of the city into, first, the leafy-suburbs and, then, to further afield.
The expansion of the city was understood as a means of reducing the unhealthy congestion of people within the existing
metropolis. The expansion was entirely facilitated by the development of the transport systems associated with railway and motor car.
The roundabout also conformed to an understanding of shape and form as connected, in some way, to the specific values of
progress and democracy. Nothwithstanding the progressive idealism of the Garden City's origins, the movement also
pandered to a long-established and powerful middle-class feeling of anti-urbanism.
By the 1950s, the architectural critic, Ian Nairn followed a route between Southampton and Carlisle, and elaborated a
taxonomy of the road, deriving from the commercial exploitation of land and movement and the steady accretion of unsightly
and confusing street furniture. In Counter Attack (1956),Nairn presented a strategy for reclaiming subtopia through the removal
of associated roadside clutter, and the progressive consolidation of activities to limit sprawl. Looking through the photographs
in these books, you can see the ever-extending ribbon development along the roads of Britain. The roadside clutter of
advertising, traffic management and street furniture is described as something which aggregates through continuous addition
and that, eventually, produces an incomprehensible visual confusion.
For Nairn, the organisation of the modern road was almost all bad...the charming discoveries and associations documented
by Betjeman and the neo-romantics had been obscured by the accretions of speed and profit. Interestingly, the roundabout
seems conspicuous by its relative absence from Nairn's description. Perhaps traffic volumes had not yet, in the mid 1950s,
reached the point of requiring these islands. Nor could Nairn have imagined that fifty years later, the extended development
of the Garden City, combined with the degradation of the local bus services, would require every rural home to support two
or more motor vehicles..In this sense, it is all too clear that the roundabout has become a manifestation of the viciously circular,
and roundabout-shaped, relationship between sprawling development and increasing traffic volumes.
and the Modern Machine Ensemble
In the 1970s roundabouts were relatively scarce. The 1950s world described by Ian Nairn persisted until the 1980s.
Then economic and social transformations of that period reconfigured the roadside architecture as a series of post-industrial
and civil-engineered elements. In the South-East of England, the development of by-pass roads, and double-garage executive
estates has greatly increased the number of domestic cars on the road. The school run extended and expanded the rush-hour further.
The modern roundabout is a distinct physical manifestation of the sprawling development identified by Nairn. In Kent, the
presence of the roundabout, especially on the route between Folkestone and Margate, is testimony to the relentless
expansion of the automotive machine-ensemble.
The road and its hinterlands were described in more progressive terms through the I-spy books produced for children i
n the 1960s and 1970s. Against this background of speed and life, the observation of roadside detail seemed compelling,
interesting and educational.
But the roundabout is also a profit centre for the civil-engineering industry and its associated manufacturers of street furniture
and signs. Every roundabout comprises road and barriers, warning signs and direction signs and lighting. Taken together,
these accretions reveal the greater cost of keeping us moving.
The closer association between movement and vision is characteristic of the specific image cultures that devolve from
modernist progress. The road-side advertising poster, for example, was the first image made to be seen from a distance,
and whilst moving. Photography, cinema and fine art have each attempted, in the course of the 20C, to keep pace with the
machine and to replicate the experience of quickening excitement associated with the car. The psychological, emotional
and cognitive experience of speed has created a special and distinct kind of modern delirium - a dizzying, spinning roundabout.
The modern roundabout has become, through its multiplication, a meta-physical manifestation and symbol of speed…
accordingly, the system of the road, of which the roundabout is part, has become a consistent cultural frame within
which the displacements of modern life can be understood.
In the US especially, the open road aligned with the foundation myths of westward expansion to provide for the road-trip
in literature, cinema, photography and fine art.
The role call of personalities associated with this documentation includes, amongst many others Jack Kerouac, Ed Ruscha,
Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch.
In the UK, our roads remain a little more prosaic (lacking the backdrop of the American sublime); but remain no less poetic,
as evidenced in David Hockney's paintings of the rolling roads through the Yorkshire Dales or the films of Patrick Keiler.
Ian Sinclair's M25 book London Orbital (2002) and Radio On (1979) by Keith Griffiths and Chris Petit have both described the
the liminal road.
Conclusion - Not Squaring the Circle
In film semiotics the roundabout exists as a kind of demented carousel, and is usually used for comedic effect.
For practical purposes the psychological deflections implicit in the exaggerated and dizzying cornering of roundabouts
is contained within the film-noirish and brutalist structures of multi-storey, or underground carparks. It need hardly be added
that good things very rarely happen within these confines.
The psychological excitements and anxieties attaching to roundabouts are really the stuff of fairground rides, with all of the
perceptual ambiguities and emotional equivocations that they imply. The modern roundabout is part of a system that speaks
of speed, and at the same time just like the speed-bump, has turned into something associated with moving, but going nowhere.
Note on Safety
Photographing roundabouts is an activity which requires some care.
Traffic is moving at speed and drivers are not expecting to see pedestrians in this context.
Parking the car safely needs some thought and planning so as not to be too far from the roundabout and so as not to
inconvenience other road users.
Moving from the car to the roundabout, and finding the shot, require careful negotiation
of street furniture, limited hard shoulder access, and fast moving cars.
We photographed these roundabouts so that you don't have to. Be careful, the road is dangerous.
n.b. Karen took these photos with a 35mm film camera...
Here's hoping you get the picture!
KerrJ + Wollen P Autopia London Reaktion
Nairn I (1955) Outrage London AP
Nairn I (1956) Counter-Attack London AP
Shell County Guide to Kent (1935)
© Dr Paul and Karen Rennie
|© Karen Rennie|