The Natural Navigator will get you from A to B using satellite dishes & impatient pedestrians.
Author Tristan Gooley has made a career out of being a natural navigator. He can get from A to B, in the countryside or the city, not with a map or his phone, but by using clues around him, both natural and man-made. He’s written six best-selling books on the subject, gives lectures, has his own website and his latest podcast The Pursuit of Outdoor Clues is available to listen to now.
As our Coronavirus restrictions ease just a little today in England, I chatted with Tristan about looking for navigation clues the next time we’re out and about on an exercise walk or jog through the city.
First fun fact: In the UK, Sky is the dominant satellite broadcaster, so nearly all dishes on buildings tend to point in the same direction to its geostationary satellite in space, and that direction is southeast.
“For me, a lot of the fun in navigation is with people. For example, if you’re lost in a town who's the best person to approach to get directions from?
The person to ask is the one who spends the least time at the pavement edge before crossing. You can often tell how well someone knows an area by how short a time they pause before stepping off into the road.
The general thing with natural navigation in towns is if you’re using nature itself there’s always a relationship with the sun and the wind or any aspect of the weather.
Take solar panels for example. In Britain, they don’t always point south but it’s a pretty bad investment on the north side. You do sometimes get them on the east and west but if you see an entire roof of solar panels, that’s a pretty strong indication of a southerly direction.
Traditional terrestrial TV aerials will all point in the same direction to the nearest transmission tower and that’s a good bit of local knowledge. When you’ve seen that for your area it’ll be consistent over many streets, always pointing the same way. But once you move into a different postcode area, often they’ll switch because they’re pointing towards a mast in another direction.
You’ve got the usual suspects of mosses and lichens, so you get the golden Xanthoria lichens on south-facing roofs and mosses on north-facing ones.
And another tip is to head against the flow of people at the start of the day or with the flow at the end and you are pretty much guaranteed to find a station.
Also, look at a T-junction. You can see often tyre patterns on the road and where the white markings have been scuffed away which tell you the most common direction of turning, and that’s usually towards the centre of town.
Elsewhere there are always clues. In Amsterdam for example, you’ll often only find shutters on the south side of houses because, historically, they were too big an investment if you didn’t get direct sunlight so there was less point putting them on north-facing windows."
(c) Will Hide 2020
Top photo Tristan Gooley; transmitter photo Jackson David; Amsterdam photo Aquiles Carattino.