Natural Navigation in an Urban Environment

Natural navigation is not all about the cardinal points, although understanding how to work them out is a key element of understanding direction of travel. Natural navigation is also about location and orientation, without these, knowing north, east, south and west is not so helpful in getting you from somewhere to there.

You may have heard of the amazing feats of indigenous people who can navigate long distances without a map and compass. For example, the Aboriginal Australians are famous for their long-distance trails stretching across a continent, used for trade and cultural exchange. These trails were navigated by the use of dreamings or songlines. The songlines are an oral tradition passed down through generations in the form of stories that told the spiritual history and physical essence of an area, the law, culture, and travel directions. It enabled people from different groups to travel their lands as well as the lands of others, based on the stories. A remarkable feat, in a land with such a huge variety of landscapes and at massive scales too. This was combined with some amazing understanding of direction in the form of cardinal points (north, east, south, west).

You may wonder at this, and rightfully so, it must be beautiful to have the kind of connection to the land that joins you to the ancestors, your lore and your sense of place, but have you considered that you too use natural navigation pretty much all the time and possibly have not really thought about it? It might not be as intricate, and join you spiritually and culturally to the land in the same way as the songlines of Aboriginal Australians, but I can almost guarantee you do. So, lets explore this a little and maybe add some things to think about to enhance your everyday natural navigation in an urban environment.


The main element of natural navigation I am sure pretty much everyone uses to both navigate and orientate themselves are landmarks. These may be man-made or natural. It could be a tall building, a statue, a shop with a memorable frontage – even those dreaded golden arches (you know what I mean!). Equally it could be a tree, perhaps a buddleia sprouting from a building, a river, a hill, maybe a distant mountain or if you are in Edinburgh, an extinct volcano (Arthurs Seat). All these things are probably used by you to help navigate through your town or village.  In the town where I live, there is a clock tower which forms part of the civic centre which I often use to help orientate myself when either driving or walking around town. I also use the river that cuts through the town, along with the various bridges that cross it, to give directions to people who do not know the town. I would be willing to bet, that you do the same thing – possibly subconsciously. So next time you are out and about in town, maybe try to be more conscious about what landmarks you use to navigate with. This also translates to the woods and mountains too. When you are out walking in the countryside, consciously pick out the landmarks that you could use to orientate yourself with at the start of your walk and see how their orientation changes throughout your journey – it is a useful exercise and may help you if you’ve gone a little off course.

Sometimes the use of landmarks can lead to navigating a longer route, but they often make the route easier to follow without becoming disoriented. One downside is that it might be that the landmark becomes hidden during the route, and this is where the use of other landmarks or natural navigation methods can be beneficial.

A line of trees in the distance can indicate a built up area (or the road to a country house). So, if you are heading along a country road and see a line of trees, it might be telling you were a village, or the local town is. There is a line of Lombardy poplars just off the A420 between Oxford and Swindon as I drive home from our Oxford woods, they mark the road to a village that is hidden from view but where a friend lives. On occasion, I drop in for a cup of tea and to say hello, and the sight of this line of trees tells me that I will need to turn off soon.

Satellite dishes – South East

Housing estates are usually on the outskirts of towns, so if you are in a town and start to see housing estates then you are likely to be either heading out of town… is this the direction you wanted to be going?

The movement of people at certain times of the day or on certain days can also be useful markers. Some examples of what is known as the clustered movement pattern can include the morning and evening commute when people use public transport links to get to and from work. If there is a steady stream of people heading in a certain direction, then it could be that they are heading to or from the bus or train station. Useful if you need to catch a bus or train. Similarly, if there are big sporting or music events being held nearby, match / concert days may well see groups of people heading to or from a station or walking from the station to the venue. I don’t know about your experiences, but when I first went to Cardiff to watch the rugby, this is how I knew how I found Cardiff Arms Park. This concept of clustered movement patterns can also be used for the transport too. For example, the morning and evening rush hour (or, sit in a line of traffic hour!) can help you orientate to the town centre and main road out of town. It is also likely that the coaches you see (think National Express, Megabus etc) will be moving to and from the town centre bus station to the town outskirts to find the main roads to other towns.

You can use the sun in a few different ways to help as well. One hint on finding direction, is by looking at paintwork. If you look up at a flat surface, maybe on a painted building, and the paint has faded, then it is likely to be in the sun for long periods and in the northern hemisphere this would tend to be the southerly aspect of the building. On the flip side, if you look up and you can see that there is moss and algae on the face of the building this means that this aspect does not tend to get the sun and is more likely to stay damp, so you may well be looking at the northern side of the building. But beware, also take into consideration how other buildings may be blocking the sun from reaching those spots of moss and algae.

Satellite dishes – South

Another way of working out a southerly direction, would be if you observed solar panels on roofs. They are most efficient when they are oriented, so the sun is on them for long periods of the day, so they tend to be placed on roofs facing in a southerly direction.

Satellite dishes don’t seem so common where I live because of cable tv but we do still see them in some areas. The dishes are oriented to get the best signal from the geostationary satellite that provide their signal. In the UK, Sky is the main provider of the digital satellite services, and this tends to mean that the dishes orientated in a southeast direction.

Churches form quite a dominant part of our landscape, both urban and rural, and you are rarely too far from one. It is useful to know what they tend to orientate on an east-west axis with the altar usually to the easterly end.

Church & gravestone alignment – East West

At the beginning of this blog I mentioned that we are usually using landmarks to navigate and orientate ourselves without thinking, but then, there is the time when you might not be able to see the landmark – perhaps another building is in the way. One way to help you might be to look up and look at the clouds. You would need to do this before you lose your landmark but is a great thing to practise. Take a look up at the sky and see which way the clouds are moving. The wind at the height of the clouds does not tend to change dramatically in a short period of time so the clouds will be travelling whichever way the wind is blowing. When, or if, you lose sight of your landmark, take another look at the sky, and the direction the clouds are moving can help reassure you are going in the right direction or help you to reassess the way to go. While I’m at it, it is also quite helpful to look back in the direction you have come from on occasion and just mentally take note of some of the ground level landmarks that you have passed. This way, if you find yourself a little waylaid, you have a good chance of backtracking by using those rear-view landmarks.


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