Sunday, 8 January 2012

London on foot

A new year in London brings with it many predictable things.  A month or two of boredom as everyone vows to be good and forsake booze and spending money in favour of staying in on the sofa.  The delayed cold snap that we get instead of the 'white christmas' we were promised by the weather forecasters.  A depressing sense of just how long it is until we see sunshine again.  And the annual rise in public transport prices and the corresponding London-wide whinge about how much it now costs each of us to get to work each day.

UK commuters now pay ten times more for public transport than any other nationals in Europe, and amidst the general financial misery swirling through the continent this is not something of which to be proud; particularly as the functioning of our transport system itself is not exactly a shining beacon of achievement either.  But rather than continue to pay the extortionate fees for half an hour of misery, crammed unpleasantly close to our fellow citizens, we do have another choice.  We can forsake the bus, the tube and the overground train and...walk! 

If one believes Transport for London any journey across town requires one of their vehicles - rarely will you ever find them encouraging people to walk anywhere.  And why would they? Walking won't make TfL any money, but thus it can save the average Londoner a fortune.  In theory (if I could be bothered to rise a little earlier than I would prefer) I could walk to work from home in the mornings; in fact, I have a much more dedicated colleague who tramps a far greater distance on foot each day to the office.  Some summery evenings I do walk home again.  But obviously travelling on foot usually calls for more time than one would allow for a bus ride or tube journey.  Usually, but not always.  Many journeys in central London can be quicker on foot than by road or rail.  There are many transport stops in the city which are so close to one another that, with the effect of heavy traffic and a bus or train's obligations to stop and start at the whim of its passengers, it will often take less time to move between them on foot.  A pedestrian can take shortcuts that a motorised form of transport may not even be able to fit down, and London is fully of such snickets; winding cobbled streets, hidden passageways, cheeky cut-throughs via shopping centres or office forecourts.  And who knows what you might discover when you venture slightly off the beaten track.

When I first came down to work in London as a recent graduate I walked a lot.  Partly this was due to the fact I had no salary and transport costs were expensive, but also it was a useful way to explore the city.  Rather than sit glumly at my desk over lunchtimes I would head out for a stroll, pottering around nearby streets to orientate myself (by which I mean knowing not only which way is North or South, but also where is the nearest cafe/bookshop/gin palace etc!).  Even now if I'm having a busy day I try and escape the office for a quick leg-stretch, and more often than not I discover something new.  You see nothing of a city from deep beneath it in a tube train; you could be in any city, anywhere in the world, from all you can see outside the dark windows.  Even on a bus, steamed up windows or an overwhelming stink from the tramp asleep on the backseat can distract one from the world whipping (congestion-permitting obviously) past the windows.  If you travel London solely by its Underground system, that iconic map - a spaghetti of multi-coloured lines - is fooling you about what the city really looks like, and where places actually are.  Not only can you learn a more accurate lie of the land from walking through the city, but you can also uncover hidden secrets or even encounter things that make you change a perception you might have about a particular area or the city as a whole.

On foot one discovers independent shops or businesses and quiet cafes tucked away off the main street of standard stores.  One stumbles across tiny concealed gardens, bright spots of vegetation shrouded in multi-storey secrecy.  One finds marks of the city's history in ancient signs or architectural features which most visitors to the city may never know about.  One sees iconic landmarks or familiar views from unexpected angles - catching a glimpse of a section of the skyline through a  gap in office buildings or across a park gives me a nudge, reminding me where it is I live.   
From the pavement, one can even catch a glimpse inside the city's top visitor attractions.  I strolled back home through Regents Park today and, skirting London Zoo's boundaries, I caught sight of a large group of penguins going about their Sunday afternoon chores by their pool.  Their funny little waddles made me smile, and also made me very glad I decided not to get the tube home.  And if a gaggle of penguins in the middle of the city isn't enough of an incentive to ditch motorised transport I don't know what is.  


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  2. I am a bit of a completist when it comes to cities, So i want to know every street, but in london its impossible, frustrating, but also wonderful after 2 years of living here I still get lost in east london.

    Some one should write a wakers version of 'the knowledge'

  3. Try the Boris bikes if you sign up its a really cheap way of getting about

  4. So they should, Adam, although I bet it would take far longer to learn than the taxi version. A lifetime I expect!

    Boris bikes are a good alternative form of transport too, Mo. However I hope everyone else has a better experience than I had:


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