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The Joy of Walking in London

Walking Around The City of London

Before I begin I feel the need to publish a disclaimer:I am not a person of faith. I endured a religious schooling but it is now behind me and no spirit can claim to occupy my heart.I do, however, have an enduring love of the spiritual and beauty in all its forms and I am able to empathise enough with the mystic pull of spirituality. Paintings, music, sculptures, buildings and other forms of artistic endeavour have won me over but religion will never do; organised religion even less so. For people of faith I respect your right to a personal belief but I do not believe you have the right to encroach upon my world nor the world I seek to shape.

What I aim to do is publish a selection of my favourite churches or buildings and connect them on this blog as the basis of a good walk for those people that want to remain within reach of a bus stop, a tube station, a coffee shop or cafe.

The City of London is a small geographical area which is rich in architecture and old church buildings. Some of these churches are built on foundations dating back to the Saxon ninth century . It is because they are churches and remain at the centre of worship for generations of Christians, that these buildings have survived the vandalism of the ‘modernisers’, though some have not been so fortunate. The churches that have survived the constant re-making and demolition that is the way of the City afford us a peek into our past at a London that has long vanished. It is for this reason that they ought to be amongst our most treasured and protected buildings.

These churches are on my doorstep, some quite literally no more than fifteen minutes walk from our front door. So, with a copy of Stephen Millar’s excellent pocket guide, London City Churches , I set out on an extended walk, criss-crossing the City, to discover these architectural jewels for myself, a great number of which were built by that imposing architectural giant of Restoration London, Sir Christopher Wren.

What I didn’t expect to discover is how well connected Londoners are to a rich and sumptuous past that survives in its churches. A past of commerce, invention, prosperity and faith that lay before me and one which is in need of a wider audience if only to preserve it from the glass fronted vandalism of ‘modernisation’ and the ever present threat of the pile-driving villain.With the price of land in the City reaching astronomical sums in 2013 it is perhaps even more necessary that Londoners and visitors to the great metropolis keep a watchful eye on these and other great buildings that are linked to our past.

The wreckers of the Victorian period tried their hardest to demolish so many of these churches as did the City of London Corporation but due to the dogged diligence of organisations such as the Friends of the City Churches and the City of London Churches they continue to prosper. Do visit them. They sit in a part of London you may never have visited before but the reward you will gain will justify the effort and the walk is wonderful.

 

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The Slow Road To Recovery

                        

Photo: http://www.healthtap.com

Virgil wrote that ‘The greatest wealth is health’. Whilst I fully concur with the Greek sage I have to say that my right knee was never the same after I flew over the handlebars of my bike one sunny August morning last year. A raised kerb, hiding in the shadows of a huge oak, propelled me over my handlebars and onward like a geriatric Buzz Lightyear. I saw the funny side of my horizontal launching (and quickly checked to see how many people saw me fly; it was only a few!) but between grimaces of genuine pain. In fact the pain was so bad that I had to wait whilst sat on the kerb until my eldest son arrived to help me home.Thankfully, as we don’t live too far from the scene of my embarrassment and so he straightened my handle bars and supported me as we walked but I was not happy.

My knee didn’t heal but became progressively worse and this condition stayed with me for some time. It now appears to be as well as it ever will be. I have a couple of stages of The Capital Ring to complete so I thought now was the time , metaphorically at least, to get back on the bike and share some of the notes I wrote in my notebook at the time of my rehabilitation. It had been a dark period in my life. Hopefully, my next entry after this will be notes on the completion of The Capital Ring.

Monday 24th September 2012

My knee is getting progressively worse. On the 13th September 2012 I had to attend A & E at St Thomas’ Hospital as the pain in my knee was now at a very uncomfortable stage. I cannot turn whilst standing still as the pain is insufferable. I sat for three hours and the very helpful GP told me that it was more than likely that I’d torn some of the fibres in my medial ligament on the right knee. The damage to these ligaments will not show up on an x-ray and need an MRI scan and so she referred me to attend the Knee Clinic at the Hospital.

It is now more than a week since I attended A & E and my doctor has not received the paper work. My GPs surgery is no more than a five-minute walk from A & E and therefore It’s not too much to expect the paper work to be sitting on his desk awaiting his action. Meanwhile, I sit at home and the knee hurts and I’m taking anti-inflammatory tablets to reduce the pain.
I phoned my surgery and they assured me that no paperwork has arrived and they will get on the case for me and contact the hospital. Something needs to be done soon or I’ll not last the week. The appointment needs to be made soon as my condition is worsening and it will have a domino-effect on the rest of my health and well being. I’ll explain how:

If I am unable to walk I have to sit indoors;
If I sit indoors and do not exercise then I will gain weight, moreover my ankles will start to swell;
then my mental wellbeing starts to get worse as I cannot allow my ankles to swell and this makes me feel morose. I cannot bear feeling unfit and this injury continues to make me feel so.

I am now awaiting a phone call from the surgery to tell me what’s happened and how this problem can be resolved.

Saturday 29th September.

I walked home from Waterloo Station and it appears that a combination of rest, tablets and limiting the distances I walked is having a positive effect and the knee appears to be improving. At the moment I no longer have any back pain though there is every chance this happy circumstance will change by next week. What I plan to do, therefore, is walk sparingly but regularly and slowly build up my tolerance and reaction to miles walked.If I do this correctly it could be a profitable winter for me: one where I may build my walking fitness … The ankles also feel sore and the cracked and broken skin on both heals needs urgent attention. Another job on the list.

Tuesday 16th October

I attended the Musculoskeletal Assessment Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital to get to the bottom of what it was that is causing me so much discomfort.Getting an appointment so quick is great news but I have to say I’m not looking forward to the examination!

The beauty of seeing a specialist at a hospital is that they know their specialism inside out. The physiotherapist that examined me knew her job so well that she was capable of diagnosing very quickly what she believes has happened to my knee.I first filled in a questionnaire … Next was the examination. For thirty minutes I had to perform leg stretches, achilles stretches and squats to demonstrate that my balance was not impaired and that basic functions of the knee worked without pain.I lay back on the examination couch and she stretched the knee joint and twisted it; probed and prodded the joint in search of floating parts or a knee joint incapable of functioning correctly. All appeared well but she did detect a problem: I had undergone some form of fibre tear on the right-knee which was now almost healed and would account for my improved mobility. After a range of stretches, pulls and exertions she announced that the fibre tear was the most likely explanation due to a lack of swelling after any physical exertion. She would sign me up to a physiotherapy group which would  heal the problems of the knee.She recommended swimming, cycling and re-visiting my own gym which I have been paying for without using for the past six months! Exercise is what is needed but it has to be slow and gradual and not in one leap which may damage me once more. My target is therefore to do cycling in the gym and build up my fitness before finishing the last leg of the Capital Ring sometime over the half-term holidays at the end of the month.
With that I thanked her and walked home to contemplate the first stage of my rehabilitation.

Thursday 8th November

Physiotherapy appointment at St Thomas’ Hospital.

On physical examination, there were no abnormalities observed and no tenderness on palpation. Ege’s test was negative… his injury appears to be well into the healing process as he is self-managing very well. There is however some core weakness and so with that in mind he was given some core strengthening exercises to supplement his current gym programme.’

Post-Hospital recovery

Finishing the last leg of The Capital Ring at half-term didn’t happen. I’d gone off the idea and the rehabilitation to this point has consisted of walking and gym work in between bouts of supply teaching.I’m not a very consistent gym person but I do try my best. I am now at the point where I try not to think about my knee at all but there is always that unease lurking within my psyche that my knee will never be what it was and at some stage will restrict me from doing what I love to do: walk. I understood some time ago that I am mortal (doh!) and that ageing is what we humans do. So, if I am able to I shall get out and walk the paths across our beautiful landscape and I shall appreciate what I can do and not what I cannot. Walking is a simple act of placing one foot in front of the other and yet at times we don’t realise how fortunate we are to walk.

Next: The completion of The Capital Ring.

Rory Stewart Reflects On Walking Whilst Walking Across Afghanistan

I decided to include a post on the renowned diplomat, long-distance walker and former Deputy Governor in Iraq, Rory Stewart, as I’d just finished re-reading his great book The Places in Between. He’s a fascinating character with an interesting background and if a man deserves a wider audience then it is he. I recommend his book, heartily, and if you do read it I hope you get as much enjoyment from it as I did.

Rory Stewart is a Tory MP for Penrith and the Border and a former diplomat who has an unusual background. He is a supreme long-distance walker and wiki informs us that ‘from 2000 to 2002 he made a series of treks in rural districts of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey totalling around 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses’ . He walked across Afghanistan in January 2002 just as the post-9/11 Allied bombing of Afghanistan began. He covered the distance entirely on foot following the route taken by the Mongol Emperor Babur the Great. In extremely hostile conditions and at high altitude Stewart survived by living off the generosity of the Afghan people to shelter and feed him. When he sat down to write ‘The Places In Between’ he dedicated the book to ‘…the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal…never in twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me.’ His dedication gives you an idea of the hazards he faced and the tight prose chronicles his every misfortune, scrape and slice of good fortune. No doubt, the film will be in production soon as it is rumoured that Brad Pitt has bought the film option and was in the process of casting. We shall see.

So why walk? And why walk such long distances, day after day? Well, a long-distance walk gives an individual time to think and the space to let the imagination reign freely; it gives you time to reflect upon your life or to contemplate the meaning of human existence or to merely escape from the everyday and the mundane. With so much time to ruminate long walks can evoke new ideas or change an individuals perspective on the world. A long walk gives you plenty of miles to free the clutter and see the world clearly. Rory Stewart put it slightly more eloquently:

‘I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan… I redesigned a journey around the world, which would finish where I began in Turkey.

I thought about evolutionary historians who felt that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two-legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of  out of Africa. As a species we colonised the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostella in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.

Bruce Chatwin, who was very interested in these things, concluded from all of this that we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth. I was not certain that I was living or thinking any better.

Before I started, I had imagined that I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or write a novel set in a Scottish village which would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary and memorise poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.

In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at the movement of the canal water and peacocks in the trees. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Baghvad Ghita open in my left hand and read a line at a time. In the centre of Nepal I began to count my breaths and my steps, reciting phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way in which some people meditate. I could only feel this calm for at most an hour a day. It was , however, a serenity that I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.’

Rory Stewart The Places in Between (2004)

Wimbledon Common on the Capital Ring

The Windmill on Wimbledon Common

I love this description of Wimbledon Common by Walter Johnson in 1912 and as it can’t be bettered I’ll include it in it’s entirety:

“He does not know Wimbledon Common who is not familiar with its labyrinths of leafy glades, its tangled thickets of wild red rose, bramble, and honeysuckle; who has not often traversed its turfy plateau and had the perfumes of odoriferous herbs borne in upon his senses; who has not pondered over its rusty pebble, and wondered whence they came; tried to acquaint himself with what may be gleaned of local history; First of all, to the Conservators of the Common, to whom we really owe very much, one may appeal for the preservation of the heath in its wild state… one prays earnestly that the Common be not vulgarised… by making this lovely spot ordinary – a kind of level, well-ordered suburban park, for this windswept Common is not ordinary; it stands alone, and is therefore priceless”.

The Common is anything but ordinary nor what I would consider suburban. It attracts visitors who come to exercise, stretch a leg, yarn, ramble or just pass time under its shaded boughs. Types of person drawn to this beautiful managed woodland range from earnest dog walkers of all ages (and some considerably older than you might imagine!), walkers brandishing maps (and those without) , horse riders, coach trippers and denizens of the local elderly care homes for whom the Common provides a fantastic opportunity for exercise, pleasure and an alternative to sitting indoors and slipping from view of the world.

The car park is a good starting point as it is there that the cafe, toilet and entrance to the windmill museum all cluster. The tea and flapjack I can recommend and do so! Once you set off then head in the direction of the Queen’s Mere which takes you rambling through the woods, down and up the hill, following the path and across the golf course. There are many paths to choose from once you’re in and most seemed peaceful, smothered in leaves and very quiet on the day I visited: less dogs unleashed here, also. On a very hot day twisted bracken and leaves lay strewn around and after taking in the lay of the land I decided there and then that I can’t wait until winter to re-visit here, to see it stripped of its summer clothing and bare. You see, a fresh perspective in a new season is not just the obligation of a photographer but of anyone who has a love of the landscape and this Common has a handsome prospect apparent from the moment you dig your heels into its rich, loam soil. There are plenty of benches within the woods to sit and gather your thoughts or to simply watch the geese or just people-watch: whiling away some time on the tree tinged shore of the Queen’s Mere is probably the best use of a walker’s time.

A very English setting for a pathway

When you’re up for moving you may set off down the slight incline which ultimately leads you to the A3 and the Robin Hood gate and entrance to Richmond Park. As you descend the slope there is a rather large war memorial on your right shielded from view by the tall thicket of bushes and towering trees which make this path such a pleasure. This is also close to Putney Vale Cemetery, slightly further up the incline and close to a different path.

I have mixed memories of the cemetery as this was the site of a memorial service and burial I attended with some forty to fifty others of a good friend of mine. His name was Sam and he was in his late thirties. He died from mental health complications that none of us seemed to understand nor know about and with neither parents alive nor his family in attendance it was us, his loyal but ill-informed friends, that had to see him off to the next world. The vicar assured us that it had been the best turn-out he had seen for some time considering he was to be buried in a rather un-assuming plot. If nothing else we ensured through our collection, the last big whip-round, that he would have a grave stone and be remembered with some dignity despite the condition in which he died.This walk was the first time I’d been close to the cemetery since his burial some years ago.

Ahead lies the A3 and Richmond Park and I’ll end the South-Western Parks at this juncture as I’ve written a fairly long piece on Richmond earlier in the blog.Once I tired of Richmond town and its various and numerous watering holes it was across the Thames and onto the paths of the Regent Canal to the west of London and the path to Harrow-on-the-Hill.

 

 

‘Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city…

Iain Sinclair, if you didn’t already know, is a fine writer and a fine writer of walks neatly dovetailing with his wider understanding of poetry, film, literature and life. He has a distinct vision of London as do I. His vision is one and mine is another. We all view our city through eyes filtering memories and connecting neurons and it is these unique experiences that inform what we write about.

Here’s what Iain Sinclair has to say about why walking is the best way to view your town:

‘’…the changes, shifts breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself…Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together…’ Iain Sinclair Lights Out For The Territory (1997)

How do we imagine The Brent River Valley?

Part of the bank below Bittern’s Field along the Brent River Valley which was underwater days before.

Leg 8 Osterley Lock to Greenford (4.8 miles or 7.8km)

It requires no effort for Londoners to become detached from the land on which the streets and roads that we daily traverse are built. We know that if we walk a path or a pavement or a road or a track it will take us to our destination though the land on which such routes are built flows in a different direction beneath our feet. Through jaded eyes we view London as a flat plan view map and a series of lines, grids, symbols and colours on a map and grow accustomed to travelling with our finger along coloured lines punctuated with the names of streets, roads or places of interest. Often we fail to note the topography of the city beneath our feet or before our peripheral vision or, indeed, towering above our heads as we are consumed by time and the economic imperative. Very often as Londoners we go where we are herded and guided by the paving slabs and the tar macadam or now, in this age of GPS, by the pulsing Map App in our hand.

Yet there is another London we can see and touch and hear if we listen and smell and look for it. It surprises the visitor to learn that Brent is the name given to a river but that has to be understood before grappling with the concept of  a river valley in Brent. The river exists and the valley through which it courses is prone to flooding in periods of heavy rain. Yet the average citizen fails to imagine London as an area scarred by a series of swollen, brooding arteries bursting their banks and saturating golf courses and flood plains. That vision belongs to the Severn or the Thames of rural Oxford or Gloucester but not inner London.

It occurred to me,as it probably does to many others, when speeding through these valleys and canopied areas in motor vehicles or aboard public transport that our vision is immune to the changes in topography unless the landscape alters visually in some startling form. Only when we begin to walk the ways and paths of London, free from the paving and the tar macadam, are we able to make sense of the topography and the simple, unspoiled beauty of such places as Brent Meadow or, indeed, the flooded plain of the The Brent River Valley.

Beauty Where None Was Expected

Leg 13 – Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick (3.6 miles or 5.2km)

After leaving the bus stop in Stoke Newington High Street I weaved my way eastwards through the wide busy roads pulsing with Hassidic Jews. Within twenty minutes I stood at the gates of Springfield Park, a park I had never heard of and one which didn’t get much of a mention in my guide.

‘Inside the park there are impressive views of beautifully landscaped parkland with steep, rolling contours … and presenting pleasant vistas … east over the River Lean and Walthamstow Marshes.’ Source.

The park is a wonderful blend of woodland, grassland and wetland with manicured greens and areas of  ‘managed meadow’ nestling amidst the Ash, Oak and Plane trees.It is a rare gem of a Local Nature Reserve which attracts plenty of  visitors and people eager to enjoy a peaceful day behind its gates. Yet it wasn’t the paradise I was hinting at in the title.

The ‘beauty where none was expected’ was when I first sighted Walthamstow Marshes. The photo (above) I shot at eleven in the morning and its simple beauty is something I didn’t expect to see in London. The Marshes at Walthamstow, nestled beside the River Lea, are the last remaining natural marshlands in the London region. The campaign which saved the Marshes from the gravel extractors in the 1970s listed some 350 species of plants growing at the the time along with 17 species of butterfly, Herons, Warblers, Jays and Kestrels amongst the 30 odd type of bird spotted.

‘Wetter parts of Marshes have beautiful mixed-fen vegetation, i.e. large expanses of sedge (beautiful in flower in May) distinctly zoned from stands of Reed Sweet Grass (Glyceria maxima) and Reed Grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Latter grow to 5 and 6 ft. Two large Reed Beds – North Marsh (3 acres) and South Marsh. Reeds grow to 2.5m (8ft) and are at their best in Winter.’ Source Here.

If you have the time pay a visit. There is an official website Visit Lee Valley but I prefer the left-field version of events in the Marsh from Marshman.

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The Greenest Leg of the Capital Ring is Wimbledon Park to Richmond

Image

Leg 6 – 6.9 miles or 11.2 km

The day I walked this leg of the Capital Ring (May 25th) was the hottest day of walking so far this year.

Dry and very warm the temperature climbed as my walk progressed. I walked the distance in just over three hours but that included time to drink a cup of tea, stop and take photographs, chat to people and admire the wonderful views along the route.

Once clear of Wimbledon Park Underground station on the District Line and the signage is good (see photo in the header of the blog) and a short cut through brings you onto the fringe of Wimbledon Park itself.I interrupted a school PE lesson that was taking place in one of the corners and worked my way out of the park to the main road and down hill into the posh housing. You switch a gear here and begin to weave your way uphill through the tightly packed houses and the tennis courts of the All-England Club at Wimbledon.

My first visit to Wimbledon Park begins with a walk through a light wood on Putney Heath. The path is clear and straight and as I leave the wood behind I can now see the Windmills which are the dominant feature of Wimbledon Common. On such a warm day the cafe which sits close to the windmills attracts a lot of visitors and the tea was nice but the flapjack nicer! Sitting in the garden you see how the cafe attracts a lot of dog-walkers and older people coaxed from their cars. The occasional horse trots by kicked into action by an overheating owner or rider.

The wooded walk across and over Wimbledon Park which winds towards the A3 and the entry to Richmond Park is covered by a green canopy and so keeps the walker cool and sheltered from the blistering sun. When walking across that park there is no cover at all and the walker will surely pine for the woods of Wimbledon Park as you surely must if the heavens opened.So far, so green.The path narrows and the sound of a rugby team training to my right and the traffic roaring ahead down the A3 ends the tranquility of the woods and the constant birdsong. You cross the main road at the traffic lights at this very busy road junction.

The visual beauty of this walk is apparent as you enter Richmond Park through the Robin Hood Gate. You pass a stables on your right and before you stretches the rolling hills of the park. The park deer squat under a spreading Oak tree and carefully examine visitors using the path heading north in the direction of Spankers Hill Wood. Once clear of the first slight incline you cross a road and keep walking towards the emerging Pen Ponds seen above in my photo.

At this stage I’d walked slightly over four miles and my feet were a bit sore so I sat on a bench on the hill above the ponds and ate and drank whilst cooling my feet. The cyclists struggle up the hill to your left but the view does not disappoint and there’s a breeze that cools you as you rest. Over the cusp of the hill to the Oak Lodge before the path winds downhill heading across Pembroke Lodge Gardens towards the village of Petersham.There is a wonderful view of distant Richmond as you head downhill.

Once you have left the park you wind along a narrow path heading for Petersham Meadows before reaching the Thames. The meadows are a wild delight and very cool underfoot as you glimpse the Thames, for the first time since leaving Woolwich, sparkling through the trees and bushes. There’s a further mile to walk along the river path before reaching the centre of Richmond which gets very busy on a warm day. Have no fear as the walk is now over and there is a wide choice of pubs that will gladly help you quench your thirst before catching the train back to London.

Once you’ve completed this wonderful walk you’ve earned that drink.Cheers and enjoy!

John Furse

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