From the archive: Not far from anywhere

Before starting this new blog at the turn of the year, I used to have another blog which dated back to before I started teaching. I was looking through my old posts, some of which are sat offline, and I found one which I really enjoyed. It is about walking, it is geographical and it is about London…

I may look out from my flat window and see the London Eye and the skyscrapers of central London in the distance, but it’s really not that big a city is it? As a visitor to the city, before I moved down permanently, I only ever saw dots of the city; those few hundred square yards around the exit of a Tube station. It’s only since moving down to London that I’ve been able to play dot-to-dot, often by accident, through going on random walks across the city and happening across familiar street-scapes and being able to make those physical and psychological connections across London.

On one of my first days after arriving in London as a resident, I took a stroll from Victoria station, via Parliament and Trafalgar Squares, along the Strand and ending up at St Paul’s cathedral. The first time I’d been to Victoria was arriving in the city – for only the second time in my life – on a National Express coach, en route to the Martin Keown testimonial at Arsenal’s old Highbury Stadium. It was on my very first visit to London that I first went to Chancery Lane, walked past Sainsbury’s headquarters (an odd memory to have of one’s first visit to their nation’s capital I know, but there you go) and saw a sign for Fleet Street. Chance rather than intention lead me to walk past the Sainsbury’s headquarters a first time, but in walking along that route I saw St Paul’s cathedral for the first time (a much more impressive building to remember I’m sure you’ll agree, unless you’re Justin King that is). The walk took about two hours at a gentle pace and took me past Parliament which is something of a would-be career destination and which I’d also glimpsed for the first time on that trip down for the Arsenal game.

That broadly West-East transect was the first time I’d realised how distance and space are relative, dependent on the experience of the individual which gives them context to the place that they’re in. A few week’s after that first wander, I set out from my flat on a glorious sunny day-0ff from work, heading off down Putney Hill and, again on a whim, I decided I’d continue on into central London. I didn’t really know the route I would take, my intention was to make use of the generously distributed signposts (an advantage of urban living). So I headed down Fulham Road, along past Stamford Bridge and meandered through the streets till I hit Sloane Square. It was here I had my first celebrity spotting in London as I brushed shoulders with Stephen Tomkinson, not quite an Oscar-winner or soap star, but I remember Ballykisangel. Fumbling my way on, I came up at the back of the Royal Mews and then Victoria Station (I only realised in hindsight that this involved coming back on myself, but it didn’t feel like it at the time). From then on it was like retracing steps, down Victoria and into Parliament. At least now though, I could say, across two trips, I’d made my way from my flat to the steps of St Paul’s.

This penchant for urban hiking had taken a hiatus, I occasionally happened across new routes from one pocket of the city to another, which I had been familiar with independently without knowing a way between. That was until today, when, after the end of an early kickoff match at Arsenal (a fabulous 6-2 win over Blackburn Rovers, who I’ve watched Arsenal play more than any other team). With nothing to get back to, I set off through the villa-lined streets of Highbury and walked through Highbury Fields. This again brought back memories: the last time I’d been to Highbury Fields was as my father and I searched for Highbury Stadium, walking in quite the wrong and yet more scenic direction. From Highbury Fields I continued to retrace my footsteps of that first visit to watch Arsenal, except rather than boarding the Tube at Highbury & Islington I decided to carry on. Islington reminded me of Hampstead; full of restaurants, bars and other services to entertain the new yuppie population of North London. Continuing down Upper Road I was very much enjoying the late Sunday afternoon sun, which I found strangely in character for Britain in October. Happening across a cross-roads I wondered where to turn next. Looking at the street signs I saw Pentonville Road, which seemed to ring a bell, for some reason I seemed to remember it headed to Kings Cross. I was right. About twenty minutes later I saw the station in the distance. I felt quite chuffed. Was I to board a train here? No. I was having far too much fun.

I’d walked between Euston Road and central London only once before and had a few forays into the streets between the two north-bound stations. It didn’t feel at all new though as many of the place-names were familiar. I spotted the Generator youth-hostel where I’d spent a traumatic night a few years earlier on another of my infrequent visits to the capital. I walked across Bloomsbury Square and there before me was the British Museum. I’d been here before, but only walked between the Museum and the Tube. Pressing on I spotted Shaftesbury – I must have hit theatre district. Turning down one street and then another, I spotted a white-rooftop in the distance, a familiar-looking building, then I realised where I was: Seven Dials. I’d randomly walked from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium to one of my favourite Indian restaurants! Standing at the centre of the seven-roads, I looked around, appreciating it more fully. I spotted Belgos down one of the shoots – another one of those eateries I’d been to before but couldn’t remember where it was. I was joining dots at an increasingly rapid rate now, I spotted the Duke of York’s theatre and realised that all the times I’d walked across the city, often with a destination in mind, I was oblivious to all the other places I was walking past. Then I was in Trafalgar Square. My walk felt complete; it felt more complete once I’d polished off a frappucino on the Strand.

So in an hour and a half I’d walked from the Emirates, which I’d only ever got to and from via Tube before, to the very heart of London. Moreover, in three separate legs, I could now lay claim to the feat that I’d walked from the door of my flat to my seat at Arsenal. This thought gave me some satisfaction and also helped me realise that with a little free time and a spirit for exploration, you can develop a deeper knowledge of the city and strengthen your sense of place.

Since writing this post in 2o09, I have come across a lot of material on psychogeography and urban hiking, not least Will Self’s columns in the New Statesman. It is funny that just yesterday in one of the fantastic independent bookstores in Vineyard Haven, I saw a book called ‘The Walkable City’, which talks about the interface between urban studies and walking. As I originally tried to demonstrate in this post, it is a small world.

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