Now I do have to say that the British road system is depressing. Thousands of miles of verge, embankment and cutting cleared and managed to varying degrees: non-spaces where people constantly pass but no-one stops. Seasonally varied in its appearance: in late spring to early autumn it is beautiful, verdant and green, in winter, horrid as you can see all the plastic bags and rubbish caught in the vegetal tendrils. My favourite time is early spring when, in Wales, daffs bloom everywhere, growing naturally but also planted to beautify roadsides.
The roadside is a distinct form of landscape: a no-man’s-land, a non-place. Dangerous, monotonous, but sometimes a rich habitat for wildlife, this is a ‘landscape’ of extremes in human behaviour. Those that wouldn’t litter gardens will litter here. It is a zone of flytipping and casual discard. Yet it is also a ‘landscape’ of death and memory.
Let me give an example.
Last week, I got the opportunity to stand on a spot, on an A-road in North Wales, for c. 25 minutes. I was waiting for a minibus to pick me up. There is a cyclepath and pavement here, but it is sporadically used, so I was alone in plain sight. This is a car zone, with a 50mph speed limit and few people stop. After a while I got bored of watching motorists watch me. I started to observe. A grim, grey, cold February by a roadside. Still, there were catkins, signs of spring being around the corner. But what else?
In the time I was there, I took some photos that encapsulate the range of material culture in the vicinity and its contrasting motives.
- Roadsigns – pretty standard but here bilingual: interesting in itself. And the painted markings on the roads and footpatch, including the giant bicycle denoting ‘cyclepath’ but prioritising one direction for no apparent reason.
- Rubbish: the residue of casual littering – thrown by pedestrians and motorists I imagine. Yet in one case, it looks as if a bag of DVDs and Playstation 2 games have been thrown down the embankment. Abandoned stolen goods or someone who just doesn’t care to watch Antz again?
- Residue of road works: cones in particular, that are tossed about and forgotten once they fall down the bank.
Then, across the road I spotted a site of mourning that I frequently pass but never get a chance to stop and visit. On New Years Eve 2012, on his way to a party with limited alcohol in his system, a 17 year-old stepped in front of a car. He died. The memorial includes photographs, flowers and memorabilia. The memorial is now over a year old and it is a sad addition to this spartan environment. I should say that the speed-limit on the road was subsequently introduced, from 60mph to the 50mph it is today (although it is unclear if this would have helped save this young man’s life, North Wales police at the inquest estimated the driver was travelling at c. 30-42mph at the moment of impact). And of course, by visiting the site, I had made a similar road-crossing to that which killed the young man. The place of death as a site of mourning is chilling and touching.
A recent paper in the journal World Archaeology addressed roadside memorials to motorcyclists killed racing ont the Isle of Man. Yet racers are a tiny minority of the motorcyclists killed on our roads, and they are in turn but one of many categories mourned through roadside memorials.
In my village, there are two principal ones (the one above being the more recent). The other has been formalised – there is nothing anymore on the ground, but ‘permanent’ memorial of replica flowers are tied and retied to a lampost by a pedestrian crossing regularly used by schoolchildren. I haven’t asked, and shudder to imagine the story behind this one. And this is true of most villages, towns and cities, as well as more lonely roadside locations across the British Isles.
Roadside memorials are ubiquitous: to mourn the deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, car, van, lorry, coach and bus drivers and their passengers. Yet as well as roadside memorials and the process of formalising remembrance in the re-naming of street-names, there is now a move to commemorate road-deaths in less hazardous locations: in cemeteries and memorial gardens.
This takes me to two other places where I know road-deaths are commemorated by the British charity Roadpeace: (1) Outside St George’s Hall, Liverpool, and (2) at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. Here, inspired by the memorial practices afforded to the military, the victims and their families are have been experimenting with ways to express their loss beyond the roadside. These are a subject of interest in their own right; how do we remember those killed on our roads? Simultaneously, memorials by roadsides, and those elsewhere, are points of mourning and locales of protest against the law and the actions of others. That balance is hard to get right.
Those that die on our roads might not die for a particular cause. Their deaths are traumatic, sudden and involve individuals of all ages. Through horrid and varied human acts of stupidity, carelessness and maliciousness and simple bad luck that we label ‘accidents’, road deaths are seeking a strategy to be noticed and memorialised, both by our roadsides and in our cemeteries and memorial gardens.
Of course, commemorating roadside death has a long history and prehistory – land routes have always been places where deaths occur, the dead are buried and the dead are commemorated. Many of the examples of burial mounds, cemeteries and memorials that we excavate and survey as archaeologists are situated in relation to routes and tracks, even if their precise location was influenced by other factors as well. Therefore, the exploration of modern roadside memorials is both a reflection of very recent changes in how we mourn and commemorate the dead (and how we die), but also an indication of our long-term and complex relationship between death, memory and the roadside.
While I concede there are ‘safety’ issues and aesthetic arguments in encouraging the move of roadside memorials to cemeteries and memorial gardens, it is important to recognise roadside memorials as a long-lasting part of Britain’s heritage and I doubt, sadly, they will go away. I find it hard not to honour the hard work to create a mourning and memorial culture for the pedestrians, cyclings and motorists that die on and beside our British roads, even if the snobs would dismiss these improvised assemblages as ‘clutter’