It starts out among tightly-packed terraced houses that are built right up to the sidewalk. They’re all painted white on the front and I’ve learned to looked at the doors as I pass by. Red one, wooden one, blue, window on top, white–a solid wall of dwelling only punctuated by a single door and window for each house. The windows look directly into the front rooms, and sometimes you are startled by a person, standing a foot away, directly at eye level. It feels like an invasion, so I don’t look at the windows, just the doors. From the top my neighborhood looks like tangled zippers, long blocks of two-up, two-down dwellings (in America, a house is a free-standing structure; in England it just means that you have stairs and so therefore it is not a flat) that were built for workers.
My walk then takes me down a busy street that reeks of diesel fumes, and past a stately pub that was once a train station. It is red, red sandstone and brick, and would be the prize of any city on the midwestern plains in the States. Here, it is slightly shambolic and has a pub-manager-wanted sign covering the entryway. But then I climb up into the neighborhoods, and I watch a crazy mixture of concrete, asphalt, paving stones, tile, cobblestones, and blue iron furnace slag pavers that remind me of Puerto Rico pass beneath by feet.
Up and over the railway bridge. I’m just barely too short to see over the walls, but if I jump, I can get a glimpse of the fat ribbons of railways and yellow and blue trains beneath my feet. If there is a train thundering past, the whole bridge shakes a little bit. This may be why so many people seem to get sick on the bridge. It’s hard to say, but the evidence remains when I walk by in the morning.
At the other end of the bridge there is a dedicated pedestrian/cyclist lane that wends through industrial yards and parking lots and goes behind the train station, and is probably more presentable in the summertime. But at the moment it is bare, and stark, and I pass this stretch by concentrating on whatever is playing on my headphones, and looking at the red-pink painted wall that sometimes has graffiti. The courses on the wall are slightly strange, and I think that maybe the brick has been recycled, alternating courses of soft-ish rounded bricks, and crisp, smaller, squared-off bricks. I could probably find out, but I let my brain meander through the archaeological steps each time anyway.
I pass through a long, white-tiled tunnel, under the train tracks this time. I like the over and under and through of my commute, the varied terrain, weaving through the brick and steel industrial background toward the soft stone heart of the city. My walk takes me past a lot full of sturdy red Royal Mail bicycles–I occasionally see a postal worker take off, panniers fat with mail, and I am delighted every time.
I walk over the Ouse, which I always spell out (and probably pronounce) as the Oooooze, and in the wintertime it is flat and brown and disrespectful of its banks. The center of the river is at a constant, slow-motion simmer, making flat circles that blend and fade and reemerge to break the surface. When the Oooooze becomes too threatening, gates go up that block all the walkways to the center of town, and a line of pedestrians forms, boosting bags and bikes and each other over the barriers.
The walk shifts abruptly when I turn away from the river, with the precinct walls of the ruined St Mary’s Abbey rising on the right. Through the gates and into a garden with small green hills, where I walk through the broken arch of St. Mary’s. There are frost-rimed squirrels that lazily bob about, but it is usually too early for many tourists. Even a non-archaeologist would see that the area is ripe with archaeology, jagged walls coming out of the ground, bits of discarded stonework lining the gardens.
I walk alongside the museum, past a crumpled Roman tower, and up and around to the gates of King’s Manor. They’ve just redone the crest above the door and it is gilded and glorious.
And this is where I work.