Category Archives: Walking

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.

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Parks and pubs

I reviewed Travis Elborough‘s lovely history of the British public park for Caught By The River.

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Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.

This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.

It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.

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Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.

The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.

In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.

The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.

 

Getting lost in London: an experiment on Twitter

I recently gave a talk at the Design Museum about walking, and so I  talked about getting lost in London. This is an edited version of my talk.

Five years ago I got my first smartphone and everything changed. I was in Paris on a day trip and I got lost, but instead of doing what I’d always done, which is walk around, try to work out where to go by following my instincts while surreptitiously staring at a map upside down and trying not to look like a tourist, I went straight to my phone, clicked on the map app and immediately located myself – right down to the direction I was facing in. I realised then that I’d never be able to get lost in a city again – or at least until I came up with the idea of an experimental social media walk for the Design Museum, in which I would try to get lost through the misguidance of complete strangers on Twitter.

But let me digress a little.

Getting lost is a valuable experience. Your senses are sharpened, you see more and remember more. I’m sure that getting lost sharpens the imagination – some might say that it’s only by getting lost that we can find ourselves or some such pseudo-psychogeographical bullshit – but my interests are more material. Getting lost is fun. It’s interesting. It’s a great way to explore a city and learn how it is put together.

When I was growing up I was terrified of getting lost in London. When I blogged about my typical Saturday trip as a teenager from the suburbs to London, I was surprised at how repetitive those day trips were, what a narrow furrow I ploughed. My friends and I were only interested in records, clothes and football fanzines, so we’d get the train to Victoria, then the tube to Covent Garden, walk up Neal Street, along Shaftesbury Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, along Oxford Street, down Berwick Street and back along Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus, stopping at various shops along the way. We did this week after week, never straying from these paths.

The other day, I was watching a TV documentary about the sengi, which is a sort of African elephant shrew, and it talked about how these rodents construct runs for themselves in the long grass. These pathways give them a sense of safety, of security, but they can also become a trap: when predators or bush fires arrive, the sengi can’t escape the routes they know so well.

That’s a bit like how I was in London.

That changed when I moved on to a boat in Lisson Grove and began to explore the surrounding streets, getting more familiar with the way London knitted together and using the towpath as a sort of guide rope like a mountain climber. This was partly a matter of circumstances – I had lots of time and little money, so it was cheap to walk and I could afford to take my time getting anywhere, following whatever route seemed most interesting and appropriate. This is what first gave me a sense of the scale of the city, and how endlessly fascinating it can be – the domestic architecture, the quirky shops, the street furniture, the plaques to people you’ve never heard of, the sudden squares – but mostly the curious nature of the topography, which is neither gridlike nor quirkily medieval but something in between, with loads of random curves and bends, making it very hard to navigate.

Later, I conducted more ambitious, planned walks. I walked from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, 26 miles along the river, criss-crossing bridges to stay on the Thames Path. I walked the course of the buried Effra from Gipsy Hill to Vauxhall with a dowser, who used a sort of oversized Allen key to trace the path of this ancient river and in the process got us thoroughly lost in a council estate in Stockwell during a snowstorm. Most memorably, I walked underground from King’s Cross to Blackfriars following the river Fleet with a pair of urban explorers, who spend their spare time breaking into drains.

Spring walks in London: river Effra

In more recent years, opportunities for walks have diminished and I’ve rarely got lost. That’s partly because of the tyranny of the smartphone. With a phone, you always know exactly where you are and the sugary appeal of the web makes it almost impossible to avoid clicking.

So when the Design Museum got in touch, I began to think about walking and technology and wondered whether the power of the smartphone could be harnessed for good: could I use the phone to help myself got lost? I conceived the idea of a walk that would be guided by social media. I’d take a starting pointing – which was obviously the Design Museum – and then ask my followers on Twitter where I should go: left, right or straight ahead. Every now and then I’d take a photograph but otherwise I wouldn’t reveal my location until the end.

The results were mixed. Part of the problem was one of integrity. Should I ask people directions at every single junction, or only ones that looked kind of interesting? I soon realised I couldn’t ask at every single junction, as there were so many of them, and some of them just took me straight back to where I’d come from, or to somewhere I already knew, or on to a long straight road with no end in sight. Conversely, sometimes I’d see a really interesting side street which I couldn’t explore because my followers didn’t send me down it.

Another problem was that my phone is quite old so has a tendency to crash. That meant I stood at a junction on Old Jamaica Road for about ten minutes turning the phone on and off and on and off and on.

The final problem was simply and fairly obviously that staring at a phone while walking, even if this is being done in the service of getting lost, makes it almost impossible to absorb the sights around you and relish the experience it’s all been designed for.

But I did enjoy the interaction with other people – occasionally I’d post a picture and those who recognised it would send me information about the building or street, tell me something interesting about the area, historically or personally. Others talked about doing similar experiments, sometimes in cars, with the passenger telling the driver to turn left or right at random. And while I didn’t get lost, there were definitely several occasions where I didn’t exactly know where I was, until twitter, rather brilliantly steered me back towards the river, which seemed a fitting place to end. The biggest surprise was that I only covered just over a mile in 45 minutes.

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There are other ways of getting lost or just exploring London in a more chaotic fashion. The members of the London Psychogeographical Association once explored Globe Town in Mile End using an old US Civil War battlefield map. Somebody once attempted to see how far they could travel from Trafalgar Square without ever crossing a road – he managed to go 17 miles before he began walking in circles somewhere in Hackney. Another acquaintance composed a series of walks that were both complex and rather beautifully simple – he’d walk from the first street beginning with A in the A-Z index to the last beginning with A, then do the same with every other letter in the alphabet.

I also recently discovered a book – Ways To Wander, which has a series of ideas about walking from writers and poets. I liked several especially No 26, which is a version of the twitter walk only using a wooden spoon. You take a spoon, throw it in the air, then walk in the direction it points until you hit a wall, when you do it again. Continue for as long as appropriate.

I quite like the lo-fi nature of that. Perhaps that’s the best way to get lost in London. Leave your phone at home, carry a wooden spoon, and wander.

The Barbican Estate – a town reconstructed from its cellars

In the comments to my Guardian piece on the Blitz (yes, I read them, hungrily seeking affirmation) there were several interesting discussions about the Barbican. In the piece I’d described it as a “successful” example of post-war redevelopment, something others were quick to dispute, arguing that nobody liked the Barbican. I hadn’t considered my view particularly controversial, but then I do spend a lot of time talking to Brutalists and had also just written an article about the history of the Barbican for the excellent n magazine – in-flight magazine for Norwegian airlines.

You can read it here, where there are also some excellent photographs. And here’s a video of Unit 4 + 2 singing “Concrete And Clay” on the unbuilt estate in 1965.

While writing the feature, I spent a couple of hours exploring the Barbican more carefully than ever before. Although I’ve visited the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London on countless occasions, this has rarely led me through or over the estate itself. There’s something about any estate that doesn’t welcome visitors and during my walks around London I usually stick to “normal” streets, but the Barbican is well worth your time.

The Barbican, contrary to public perception, is a wonderfully walkable part of London. Yes, it can be confusing but it was built with the pedestrian in mind so amply rewards the willing walker. As I wrote:

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line may abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work.

There are surprises around every corner, such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mendelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where Oliver Cromwell was married and the poet John Milton is buried.

Another fine spot is the roof of the concert hall, initially conceived as a sculpture court, which is framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Crescent and overlooked by a giant tower.

The Barbican is often chastised for being confusing and it can be, but this is precisely what many people like about the City, with a medieval street pattern that is often deemed charming. And is there anything wrong with getting lost in London anyway? I’ll report back on that thought in my next blog post.