Topophilia – the love of place… and its geographical connections

Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick

Writing in the Times Higher Education, Danny Dorling and Carl Lee argue that “the real essence of geography isn’t ‘the facts’, but the ability to join them together to create something greater than the sum of the parts”. This idea of joining together different parts of geography was emphasised by current GA President Steve Rawlinson at the GA Conference as he chose his favourite place and made as many interdisciplinary connections to it as possible. He attempted “to join up all the disciplinary dots” through a focus on one place.

The concept of ‘place’ is now prominent in the new A Level specifications, asking students to understand the nature, flows and connections of places. It encourages them to develop their ‘sense of place’ – the idea that a space becomes a place when you attach personal meanings to it. For me, the Lake District town of Keswick holds a strong sense of place, a ‘topophilia’ – that is “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (Tuan, 1974: 4).  It is because of this that I will assess Keswick’s geographical connections:

  • Historical: Before tourism became Keswick’s dominant industry, the discovery of graphite in nearby Borrowdale enabled Banks, Son & Co. to open the first pencil factory in Keswick in 1832. Although the factory has since been moved, due to development restrictions in Keswick, Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company, as it is now known, produces some of the finest pencils in the world. The museum, on the site of the old factory, also claims to have the world’s largest pencil!
  • Archaeological: Close to Keswick, is the Neolithic stone circle of Castlerigg. It may have been used as a trading post, meeting place, astronomical observatory or religious site.
  • Cultural: The Lake District is well known for being a draw for literary figures. The ‘Lake Poet’ Robert Southey lived in Keswick; his most famous most work being ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, the original Goldilocks story.
  • Geological: You cannot ignore the impressive setting of Keswick – on the bank of Derwentwater and in the lee of the Skiddaw group, the oldest group of rocks in the Lake District.
  • Economic: Keswick’s economy is now reliant on tourism. The flooding in December 2016 threatened the main income of the town as the £6 million flood defence scheme was breached.
  • Social: Keswick has a clear socio-economic structure. The average age of Keswickians is 47 and the majority of residents are British and identify as Christians.
  • Political: The conflict between development, conservation, tourism and residents that is present in many National Park settlements is manifest in Keswick. Some of the most pressing political issues are: locals priced out of the housing market by holiday home owners, lack of affordable housing, congestion, verge side erosion, demand for parking facilities, and a new flood alleviation scheme.

It is interesting to see how a focus on just one place can reveal so many examples of the concepts we teach. This has helped me to fully understand the ‘geography’ of Keswick and given me an awareness of the connections that a small town can have with the world. It has also enhanced my ‘topophilia’, an important link to place that we need to help A Level students to foster. I challenge you to do the same with your favourite place, and then, challenge your students. This will help you to uncover the many facets of a place, as “once you begin to see how everything is connected to everything else there is no turning back” (Dorling and Lee, 2016)**.

*Tuan, Y. (1974) Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values.

**Dorling, D. and Lee, C. (2016) Geography: Ideas in Profile.

Rebecca Priest photoRebecca Priest is a Geography Teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. She is currently studying for a MA in Geography Education at the Institute of Education and presented a session on ISM at the GA’s 2015 Annual Conference. 

One thought on “Topophilia – the love of place… and its geographical connections

  1. Sue Dancey says:

    Fab article and very thought provoking. I think there is yet another dimension in considering the biogeography, natural history and ecology. This iconic photograph shows all of these elements on interconnectivity with the heathers and moorland grasslands, thin colonisers and plagioclimax ferns. One can imagine the wealth of birdlife including rare upland migrants like the mournful golden plovers, sense the hum of Flies and beetles and be startled as lizards scurry from sight. Even further thought led me to consider the sustainability of it all and the legal, cultural and moral framework that unites this feeling of a place. Topophilia is indeed a great word for all of this.

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