Web Walking: connecting history with a sustainable future through mythology and geography

University of Plymouth’s Dr Phil Smith and Plymouth College of Art and Design’s Dr Helen Billinghurst (known as Crab & Bee) set out to explore Plymouth in a way which has never been done before; through the old classical myth of the labyrinth. The project, titled 'Plymouth Labyrinth', led Smith and Billinghurst on foot throughout the city, its suburbs and wooded areas to profound ecological and historical discoveries.

Through interweaving academics, art and ecology with enchanted tales, the initial Plymouth-based project rapidly outgrew the limits of the city’s borders.

After a wave of enthusiastic responses to the 'Plymouth Labyrinth', Dr Smith and Dr Billinghurst applied for a grant from the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), facilitated by The Bridge at the University of Plymouth. The grant was to develop the initial project, which was limited to Plymouth, into a wider reaching project titled 'Web Walking', which would sample sites from the Isles of Scilly to Cambridgeshire, to explore whether they could apply the same method of research-journeying to wider locations.


Part of the method is to be physically in the landscape – what we would call hypersensitised to it. What we are doing all the time is taking in everything around us, as though we are in a new place. Even if some of the places are familiar. Lots of little things and encounters with people would arise. We were building up a way of narrating the city and different things about it.” 

Dr Phil Smith



What is Web Walking? 

Web Walking is the process of walking through an area, often off the beaten track, and looking past what is directly in front of you, questioning if there is a connection or 'web' to be made with a previous encounter or unearthed story. Through conversations with local residents and diligent research, Dr Smith and Dr Billinghurst made connections between the stories embedded within the community and the ecological and geographical history of the location. Through this process of connecting together the mythical with the geographical, Dr Smith and Dr Billinghurst strived to create and share a developed understanding of each location’s history with local communities.

“This has a sort of ecological aspect because once you begin to understand how your space has come to be, then in a way you are more informed about how you might respond, in the face of a climate crisis. As things become more challenging, you have to think about how people can change their ways of operating. It’s going to be easier to do that if you have a sophisticated understanding about how a place has already changed.” – Dr Phil Smith


Environmentally beneficial possibilities of Web Walking

Through their research journey, Dr Smith and Dr Billinghurst have developed a new inter-disciplinary method of understanding our environments, which can also be facilitated for steps toward a more sustainable future. As they travelled across the South of England, they began to notice how the same stories, in slight variations, seemed to travel across the country, from the Isles of Scilly, through Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire. As a result, their research developed to analyse how those stories are connected through an ancient trade route.

Through this SIF funded project, not only have ancient myths and folk stories been uncovered, but bones of old distribution networks have also been identified. These traditional methods of living could offer a potential alternative, a more sustainable distribution system which Dr Phil Smith hopes to explore further, facilitating the stories they discovered travelling through the 'Web Walking' project.

Bringing the story of Albina back to Teats Hill slipway in Plymouth.

“We’re thinking about these stories, partly in terms of the future and how, if we had to change our way of moving goods, in less energy expensive ways, it probably means moving to something more local. We’re considering whether these stories can help us to renew some of the older and more localised routes. Rather than it just being a functional process, it’s also an enchanted process. So, people feel that we’re not just doing this because we’ve got to cut down on our carbon footprint, we’re doing this so that we can renew the old rituals.”
Dr Phil Smith

The future of this project 

Dr Phil Smith and Dr Helen Billinghurst are creating a publication (‘The Pattern’, now written and due for publication in summer 2020) which will create a toolkit of ideas and actions, developed through their research journeys, which will enable others to create their own narratives within their communities. Their research will also be distributed to others, from artists and mental health professionals to traders and community groups. They are also considering delving further into the potential for more localised trade routes in the future, through the research collated within the Web Walking project.

How Knowledge Exchange has benefited this project

Knowledge Exchange is at the very heart of this 'Web Walking', with both Dr Phil Smith and Dr Helen Billinghurst bringing together their diverse expertise and perspectives; Dr Smith is trained in performance, Dr Billinghurst in film making and visual arts. It is through this exchange of knowledge and combination of varying perspectives that their ever-growing projects have developed into multi-faceted, wide reaching research which has an unlimited potential. This research has enabled Dr Smith and Dr Billinghurst to uncover past cultures and traditions which could become the foundation on which we build toward a more sustainable future.