Asking For Directions

Image: A posthumous portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity, British School circa 1610-40, Royal Collection, London

“It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.”

Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Depending on the acuity of your sense of direction, it is not unusual to feel a little lost when first arriving in an unfamiliar area. A map is useful, but sometimes the easiest way to find your way around is to ask directions. We hope, of course, that the person that we ask directions from has a better knowledge of the district than ourselves.

This, of course, is an act of trust.

A sense of disorientation is particularly felt where the urban landscape is in a state of flux. Castlegate is this kind of urban landscape: an area that seems familiar from past experience, but is constantly changing in both shape and form. Although a number of notable buildings remain standing, the visual environment has morphed confusingly during the time that we have frequented it. Occupants have arrived and left and the fascias of commerce have been altered. To cite a recent, and particularly transient, example: where there was once a thriving pop-up café, part of the University of Sheffield ‘Festival Of The Mind’, we now have a ‘meanwhile space’ occupied by a street artist’s installation.

Asking directions might start a conversation about how to use walking, mapping, and thinking about the sensory and physical aspects of being in Castlegate, how to investigate and interpret this space creatively: how to make a space, however changeable, into a place.

So I ask you, do you turn right at the old post office or at the downhill end of Rob Lee’s anamorphic window painting?

Castlegate shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate because it is relatively limited in geographical extent. It is one of eleven Quarters in Sheffield's City Centre. It is bound by Commercial Street and part of High Street to the south, Exchange Place to the east, the road named Castlegate to the north, Angel Street and Snigg Hill to the west. But the area also has a deep, layered presence in time – reaching back, as far as its name will allow, to the site of Sheffield Castle.

One of Castlegate’s previous residents was Mary, Queen of Scots: cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, the formidable Tudor empress whose name was inherited by our own current monarch. It is this historically layered dimension that might cause temporal as well as spatial disorientation when in Castlegate … a kind of chronological giddiness … but it will be no use asking Mary Stuart for directions because she died rather violently in 1587. I do have a feeling, however, that she will need to figure in any serious attempt to ‘illuminate’ the Quarter.

When entering a new area it is common to ask directions and this is how we learn to identify the personal and communal landmarks that we use to fix our relationship to the spaces that we occupy. So the purpose of this blog post is twofold: to state my current feeling of disorientation and to ask you to help me find my way.

Please can you help me to navigate Castlegate through space and time?

What are your experiences of the area, how far back in time does your memory reach?

Can you help me reach back in imagination, to the time of Mary’s incarceration or to the time of the slaughterhouses that once lined the banks of the River Don, or to imagine the Edwardians who once promenaded up that self-same riverbank when it became a riverside walk?

How would you respond creatively to the area, as it is now, in its state of flux?

What kind of picture – or story – will best ‘shine a light’ on Castlegate?

There is no need to be concerned about answering these questions right now – just have a think about how you might answer them. I hope to see you soon in person, so you can tell me then. I’ll trust you to lead the way.