IIt’s Friday night on the Greenway Trail just outside Olympic Park in East London. The last band of orange sky hangs lightly over the sleeping stadiums. Enough people get stuck in the dark for the instincts to get faster. Far from the flash of more trendy neighborhoods, a topless man dances solo to beats from his phone. An old lady hisses between cigarettes and a couple twists on a park bench.
I would not normally come here, especially not at this time, but I have given myself two and a half days to walk the capital, a 78-mile pedestrian walk in London (click here for TfL card). I check my map to measure progress, just like a bike passes by and blows hip-hop from a hidden speaker. Some children participate in the chorus, and I do too, if only for myself.
The bushes fall away to the right and a magnificent building appears. It is communal – somehow obviously so – but also boastful of the way Victorian civic buildings are; somewhere between an imperial train station and an Andalusian cathedral. The father’s dot dissolves under the lamps. I exhale. “It’s nice,” I think.
Later, I google the building and discover that it is actually Abbey Mills pumping station. Ah. That explains why this long road I’m on is so straightforward: I continue along the Northern Outfall sewer, a pipe that transports millions of gallons of cockney wastewater toward the Thames.
I grew up in a steep, green valley in Devon before moving to London nine years ago. Shortly after arriving, some atavistic urge to savagery drove me to walk as far as I could along East London’s river Lea. After herons and longboats in the Walthamstow Wetlands, I saw some Coptic Christians in white robes doing baptisms in full immersion in waters that were officially labeled ecologically “bad” by an EU directive. Each came out of the darkness smiling broadly before hurrying behind a bush to remove the bar. A little further brought me to some wooded forest at North Circular, where some tents lay scattered in the middle of campfire barrels and the air screamed of rubber. Finally I reached the Epping Forest with its large passages of oak, hornbeam and holly.
“Good trip?” asked my housemate when I returned. The components ia nice walk used to be obvious to me: fresh air, a body of water, forests, slopes, horizons. My Lea walk was materially different. “Well,” I began, before realizing I had no idea how to answer. The feeling has persisted. In addition to its landmarks, London – large, smelly, dancing, decaying, beautiful London – easily defies categorization.
In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit pays tribute to the virtues of city walking. Although the country version is accepted as undoubtedly good for the soul, she says, there are reasons why certain thinkers and poets prefer city walks. Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Ginsberg needed inspiration a clear supply of new experiences and unmediated interactions. The American poet Frank O’Hara even wrote: “I can not even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know that there is an underground subway station or a record store or another sign that people do not completely regret life … The clouds get enough attention as it is. “
The heart of modern London with its cafés and statues and fascinating folk music would satisfy any descendant of O’Hara. In addition to the central tourist attractions, however, there may be even more stimulation. In the prevalence, as the distinction between urban and rural veils, clarity bends the knee to impressions.
According to a UN definition, a place with at least 20% tree cover can be called a forest; London apparently has 21%. While trying to cross every road in one of the most congested cities in Europe, the idea of London feels like a forest at best banal semantics, at worst misleading. But walk the capital ring that steps through the endless expatriate areas and jumps from ordinary to get to streams, and the idea gets currency. Of course, this is not the forest with naturalistic homili, campfires and marshmallows. It’s different, but everywhere there’s a touch of the wild. Stag can afford on foggy hills, not a minute walk from an A-road. Gangling trees fight against developers in cracked sidewalks and send scouts into every nook and cranny.
In his memoir The Tree, novelist John Fowles wrote about having to jump into the woods. He was convinced that in the outer world, the wild nature was the closest reflection of the chaos of consciousness. Immersion fed his creativity. As I wandered abroad London, where order turned into entropy, I began to wonder if he would still have thought this more nourishingly chaotic.
It all means that a well-considered judgment from the Capital Ring is not straightforward. Every time I thought I had made up my mind, the scene changed. For a 15-minute period, I greeted families who cared for sunflowers in West Norwood, saw a drug store on a playground, and saw parakeets cavort with crows in old oaks. Over two and a half days, the route took me through heath, pastures and harbor; it led me down boulevards in Wimbledon, where the houses look down from great heights and across estates in Brent, where the terraces squat and gossip; it pushed me through the Woolwich tunnel and threw me onto the plains of Richmond Park.
The joy was in the juxtaposition, in the frothy urban-rural excitement. In Beckton, I saw a man fishing for sea bass, neither bothered by an airplane running the engines 100 yards from him on the other side of the Royal Albert Dock, nor the view to his right, the gleaming Emerald City of Canary Wharf. In Eltham, as I edged around a park used for archery, two middle-aged men in Crystal Palace shirts were picking damsons in the bush and looking at the acidity. My friend Mousa sat on the lush grass of Barn Hill in Fryent Country Park and explained why so many of his peers live nearby: it’s the only place you can get appropriate Iraqi falafel and kebab.
People like to call London a melting pot; that is completely the wrong sentence. It suggests a kind of dull sludge, of colors canceling each other out. The city’s various components – people, culture, nature – can be mixed, but they remain discreet and undigested and resist homogeneity violently or extravagantly or dourt. I have realized that walking is the best way to experience it all. Taking the pipe can be quick, but it denies the senses London’s dizzying variety and coherence, its record stores and its clouds.
A few months ago I was walking around the steep, green valley I grew up in. It was uncomplicatedly lovely. The sun was out and I could see the sea, sparkling and fresh. London is different. The parks are huge and wild, the Thames majestic, the old buildings steep and glamorous. But its love is complicated.