“Shall we walk home through the city?”
Beverley and I had been out for lunch on a sunny Sunday in London’s Southbank, treating ourselves to burgers and beers beside a window that curious tourists kept peering into.
After wiping up the last of the ketchup with our remaining sweet potato fries we headed outside to the river, where London’s weekend population were exclaiming over the bright blue skies and the glinting windows of far away skyscrapers. And for once, I couldn’t help but do the same.
Being born and raised in London affords you a certain sort of arrogance about this city. I’ve often debated whether or not I truly love living here, but there’s no doubt that I’m proud to be from here – and it feels like the years of night buses, tube strikes, overpriced drinks and crowded streets have afforded me the right to be flippant and dismissive about London’s foibles when they rear up.
Yet London’s constant draw for millions of people the world over has often passed me by. This city is history, pure and simple: it’s the place where life has kept on living for two thousand years, since the Romans built their first great wall and deemed the area within it as ‘Londinium’.
And if you look closely enough, those very first foundations are right there in front of you.
London’s tangible history
It’s fascinating to think just how many people flock through central London on a daily basis. In the office hours of Monday to Friday, it’s predominantly office workers in those glistening tower blocks who flood the train stations each evening on their way back home. On the weekends, they’re replaced by selfie-stick wielding tourists who wander open-mouthed down streets which are usually thronged with business suits and the tapping of fingertips on iPhone screens.
But these tourists are onto something. The tiny, tight-knit Financial District of London was once the nucleus of the city itself: all twisting lanes and jostling neighbours, with bakers and washer women and silversmiths working in candlelight while the rats scurried underfoot.
The thought of so many millions of pairs of tramping feet pounding the London pavements over centuries is basically unfathomable. We can’t see their footsteps, and can’t accurately reproduce the sounds, smells and situations that must have accompanied them – but some of the physical locations are still the same.
Despite hundreds of modern high rises and countless floors of glass windows sprouting up all around the city, the occasional tiny glimpses of past decades have remained.
Exploring the empty London streets
On Sundays the Financial District is eerily silent, which added another level of mystery to walking through an area I’d never seen before. Beverley and I kept stumbling across historical marvels which hadn’t simply been left alone: they were stubbornly anonymous, no matter how much we peered at nearby street signs for an explanation.
We tiptoed past tight buildings with dirt stained roofs and ornate architecture which probably survived the bombings of the Blitz. Stared at hand carved statues gazing into the distance while a few teenage boys practiced their skateboard tricks.
It was fascinating enough to simply savour the surreal emptiness of a place that, in my mind, has never seemed to pause for breath.
That day, London felt like a time warp. It was Shakespearian, Dickensian, and Victorian all at once, each period jumping out at us through the past at every street corner.
When we eventually emerged into the still beaming sunshine, it was difficult to remember that busy, modern-day London had been moving along just a few minutes away.
But there were still hints of that old world city we’d seen. On the shore line of the Thames river, mudlarkers still scrabbled between the stones for remnants of Roman living: metal coins, plate fragments, clay pipes and glass bottles.
So many lost moments of history, swirling in the silt below the water.
Looking at my inner London
My entire life in London has been an erratic line of morse code: eighteen years in a straight line then intermittent dots of university summers, winters, spare months and rushed returns to home. It has cradled me in grief and spat me out when I wasn’t looking. Even after two years of being ‘settled’ in the east of the city, I still don’t believe I belong here.
I still don’t believe I truly belong anywhere. Not yet.
Yet the past few months have seen me unpacking my own history into close to a hundred thousand words, and with that process comes an uncanny desire – perhaps even a need – to do the same with other parts of my life. Moving house recently has meant a new workspace now lightened by a large bay window and a view of the park beyond; writing so intently has given new incentives to know my city outside of its normalcy.
Savouring the unfamiliar aspects & parts of it: questioning its corners, its ridges and bumps as you investigate the crannies that you’ve always taken for granted.
I feel loved by London and yet left vulnerable for being too open. This place so easily shutters itself off from those who don’t quite fit a pre-determined mould. Glossy changes come too quickly to areas which, only recently, were feared by outsiders: too gritty, too dirty, too many dangers hiding in the shadows.
I worry sometimes that in my lust for difference, I’ll change too much for London’s own good in the process.
But that’s still to come. In four months time I hand my book manuscript over to a university professor, and with it culminates my two-year-minimum promise to live in this city I’ve loved for so long.
And then? I guess I’ll just keep walking.