In previous blogs I’ve considered the spatial and material dimensions of commemorating the deaths taking place on British roads and at roadsides in relation to traffic accidents and murders. Roadpeace is a national charity for road crash victims and their website is here.
We are all familiar with the elaborate nature of some roadside shrines, marking places where pedestrians, passengers and drivers have been killed on our roads. Some mark the loss of pets as well.
Despite their regular clearance and efforts to move these memorials to less treacherous locations to avoid further casualties among those visiting them, they remain a widespread feature of the British landscape.
Some give a clear narrative to a person or persons killed and items that denote their identities as well as the usual paraphernalia of modern memorial practice: cards and flowers. However, some are deeply ambiguous, especially in rural environments where it is unclear whether one is looking at a memorial to a road death, or the site of ash-scattering. Or perhaps some sites are both?
My example comes from rural Denbighshire. On a country lane last year, I saw tied to a prominent tree, clearly part of the historic boundary between road and field, flowers had been tied.
This is by a roadside, and it is not impossible that a cyclist or pedestrian had been hit and killed on this stretch of lane. However, the site also enjoys impressive views down the valley and is an isolated location away from dwellings; the perfect site perhaps for a memorial bench or to scatter the ashes of a loved one? I have talked elsewhere about the importance of the imagined gaze of the dead in both memorial benches and ash-scattering here. Roadsides can also be important locations for war memorials too.
My point is not to determine which is which in this particular instance. The point is that commemoration in the landscape can be inherently ambiguous, since the same kinds of location can result in memorialisation for very different reasons. Selected kinds of place can be sites of death and at sites connected to the lives of the loved one, sites where ashes are scattered and sites used to commemorate those whose bodies are far away or lost. Roadsides are thus part of a complex nexus of informal and formal cenotaphs away from cemeteries were the dead are mourned and remembered in the British landscape.
As an archaeologist, this is inherently part of my research, and especially when these locations happen to be archaeological and historical heritage locales, as most recently discussed for Criccieth Castle.