Sensing the South Downs

July 4, 2017

How do people with impaired vision experience the South Downs?

Karis Jade Petty has dedicated her PhD to finding out and this July she’ll present her findings at the South Downs Research Conference 2017, sponsored by Coast to Capital

The South Downs is an iconic landscape, an epic beauty draped in the greens of woodland, blues of ocean and whites of chalk. It is a place of panoramas, where you are invited to stand on the green shoulders of grassy giants and gaze upon a world made small.

I am an anthropologist at the University of Sussex fascinated by the different ways that people perceive and experience this landscape. Diversity is often approached in terms of accessibility, identifying attitudes of countryside service providers and visitors and then making environmental adaptions – removing stiles or improving surfaces. My research has investigated how people who have impaired vision perceive the South Downs; that is, how they feel, sense and engage with this landscape.

My findings are not only fundamental to finding better ways to make the National Park more accessible and inclusive, but also give a deeper insight and appreciation of the South Downs’ unique qualities.

I trained as a sighted guide and spent two years regularly walking one-to-one with people who have impaired vision through changing weathers and seasons. On these walks through the South Downs I investigated how and what my companions perceived, and their sense of the landscape that emerged from this.

I became an apprentice – learning to listen to the contours of the humped hillside and the winding woodland. My companions taught me to look at the light as much as at what it revealed. They showed me how to reach out and touch the world with the whole body.

My companions described their sense of the landscapes we walked as “bitty”, “too detailed”, “sequential” and “partial”. Gaining a sense of the overall size, form and qualities of the routes and landscapes we walked was a challenge. Isolated and intimate sensory impressions were like patchworks that needed weaving together to create a sense of the wider landscape. I had been walking in Stanmer Park with one of my companions for several months when she declared “it’s just a load of space – if you can’t see it’s just a load of space with sounds and textures in it but just a load of space. I don’t know it”.

Landscapes are constantly changing. The landmark tree might be unrecognisable in the forthcoming season or cut down. The path might be indistinguishable from the ground either side of it as the earth becomes dry and worn with traipsing summer visitors.

My research demonstrates the breadth of experiences felt by people with impaired vision, but I also identified consistencies in their perceptions of the South Downs and discovered their techniques for engaging the senses. These sensory techniques included listening, feeling and guiding, but also included visual perception.

Most people who have impaired vision still have a visual appreciation of the South Downs, which invited me to also look at this landscape in different ways. I hope that my findings will help to develop more inclusive recreational activities for people who have impaired vision in the National Park.

Karis Jade Petty will be describing the unique qualities of the South Downs National Park experienced by walkers with impaired vision at the South Downs National Park Research Conference 2017 on 6 July, sponsored by Coast to Capital

Photo by Huw Williams