Walking in a city is an interesting occupation.
At every step there are groups of people to squeeze between, smears of dog mess to hopscotch around and stretched-out wads of dirty chewing gum to avoid. There are oddly shaped houses and the glinting metal of office blocks glinting in the sun, mysteriously scented street food carts and the occasional pigeon pecking at the gutter: a bombardment of sensory paraphernalia that guarantees your attention to be caught in a hundred different ways.
The most fascinating thing about urban walking is how easily your perception of it can change. In a foreign city it’s a challenge that many tourists rise to: arm yourself with comfortable shoes, a bottle of water and something resembling a map, and you’ll head out into unfamiliar streets with a heady mix of adrenaline and pumped up fear at the idea of getting lost. It’s exciting; an accessible way to explore your surroundings.
But when it’s your home territory, there’s none of that curiosity pushing you to feel inspired. The streets you grew up on and the identical route you take to work each day all disappear into the same normal background. It’s much too easy to disconnect.
For me, growing up in London meant travelling everywhere by bus. The southern part of the city where my family lived wasn’t connected to the underground tube system and I didn’t trust myself to decipher the train timetables, so buses were my go-to option. Walking everywhere didn’t even occur to me.
From my seat on the second deck, I could gaze out of the window to the streets below where everything unfolded in front of me; the tops of people’s heads while they shopped on the high street and chatted to their friends, the children racing between stationary bodies. I would sneak surreptitious glances into the house windows that I glided past, noting shadowy figures against flickering television sets, trying to build one-second impressions of lives I’d never know more about.
When I grew older and began to travel, this interest in the world outside my public transport window was heightened. My senses were on high alert: listening out for snippets of language, catching the mysterious smells blowing through the window, staring out at unfamiliar landscapes and noticing the interactions between foreign passengers. My imagination ran riot: I constantly made up stories in my head about my surroundings. One summer, aged eighteen and InterRailing my way through Europe, I wrote a different poem on every train ride.
Whether I’m on foot or on transport, I always manage to feel inspired by a foreign city, but moving back to London made me feel like I needed to embrace a typical ‘city routine’ again. Within no time I was unconsciously buying a weekly travel card and manoeuvring my routes around London in various metal boxes.
But then I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago this September, a month of hard walking which I need to train for – and with that decision has come a whole range of readjustments to the way I move around this city.
“Walking through central London? Are you crazy?”
Two evenings a week, I head to a university in central London for my masters classes. It’s three and a half miles each way, and I used to automatically spend forty minutes taking the bus because it simply never occurred to me that I could walk the route instead.
But that same journey only takes an hour on foot; I don’t have to stand around waiting for the bus or worry about getting a seat, and as soon as I’m out of the door, I know how long it takes to reach my destination. Thanks to a little step-counting pedometer that I clip onto my waistband I can keep score of how many miles I walk a day (and obsessively write the stats down each night), and because genius apps like Citymapper exist I can work out the best routes to walk from any point A to any point B in London.
Although there have been some late night occasions where I find myself scurrying past an empty, echoing industrial estate and remember I should actually scan ahead on the route before I start it.
Of course, incorporating walking into the daily routine comes at a price. My choice of footwear each morning has been drastically narrowed down to only two options: my new light-and-breathable Nike trainers or my deliciously cosy leather Miendl hiking boots, to be worn in the rain or when I really want to get my legs moving. Putting my feet through their paces for at least a few hours each day means I’m growing more aware of my normal speed, learning which toes are more likely to blister, and discovering that my hiking boots rub uncomfortably on my ankles if they’re tied too loose.
And the great thing about walking similar routes each week is that as they grow ever more familiar, my desire to see something new grows too. I’ve started to break away from Citymapper’s recommended routes and take the unknown side streets while I walk, challenging myself to still find my way to my destination.
I never thought I’d feel so adventurous for simply taking a few London side streets – but it’s more than that. I’m inadvertently opening up the city for myself in a completely different way, simply by choosing to walk through it.
Finding the stories within the streets
When I moved back to London last summer, I was seriously worried that I’d get bored of my home city. So I promised myself that I’d try to keep that sense of travel-based curiosity going for as long as possible: to attempt to look at my familiar London surroundings as if I was an excitable tourist who’d never seen them before.
It might sound horribly clichéd, but pretending you don’t know where you are is a fast track to being inspired by your surroundings. Even though I know exactly what road I’m on and where I’m heading, it’s still easy to slow yourself down and look more closely at the details: people’s front doors, the colours of paint they’ve chosen, the ivy stretching up the side of a house, the ornaments in the window.
When I actually allow myself to stop and take these things in, it feels like my walks are filled with activity. I seem to stop every ten minutes to take a photo of the trees, the houses, the street art, the buildings…
Another big change that goes with my new-found love for urban walking is the humble podcast. If you use the internet on any kind of regular basis you’ve probably seen the popularity of ‘Serial’. It’s for a good reason. Listening to this podcast was my induction into a world I previously knew nothing about, and I’m pretty sure it’s changed my life for the better.
No longer do I zone out with one album playing endlessly on repeat through my headphones: instead, I laugh, cry and gasp in disbelief at the stories from This American Life, Invisibilia and The Moth. I guarantee that the people passing me in the street get so confused when I erupt suddenly into laughter or have a giant grin on my face.
These podcasts aren’t just about passive listening though. With every episode, I’m realising more vehemently that everything is about storytelling. It might be through podcasts, on the radio or in songs; read in articles and books; even talking to your friends or working at your job – it just depends on the method. We are all telling stories, all the time. I just never realised the extent of it, and so I’ve spent the last three years writing my own stories without really absorbing how other people tell theirs.
Now I’m actively educating myself in how to tell a story. As I walk through London, I listen to the way different storytellers construct their stories, delivering them with such passion that I’m usually scribbling ideas for my own stories as shaky biro notes on my hands.
Other times, those ideas are still flowing once I reach my destination. I visited the Royal Academy of Arts last week for an exhibition on Rubens’ legacy in the art world, and while I looked at the multitudes of canvases by different artists that Rubens’s work had influenced, I watched people.
I listened, eavesdropping on conversations about what they thought of the paintings, and what else the scenes reminded them of.
There were endless untold stories all around me: the group of exquisitely dressed chatting German women; the mother whispering in Spanish to her daughter on a sofa; the man in a wheelchair whose shoulders were squeezed by the name-tag-wearing friend who pushed him; the young mother dressed all in wool whose young son roared delightedly and pointed a tiny fist at a painting of a lion, pinging at the safety rope with tiny fingers.
I wandered through the gallery with a huge smile on my face, and when my imagination was full to the brim, I walked out.
Embracing the art of urban walking
It’s strange how quickly your mentality adjusts to a new challenge. After a few months, I barely even register that I’m walking straight past my bus stop each day, and I’m already looking for new ways to test the boundaries.
When a late night train home gets cancelled, I don’t hesitate to walk. I relish a friend wanting to meet in a far off part of the city because I can experiment with a new route. I’ve started rallying my friends to go on weekend walks through the local green spots of London – even when it’s raining.
Apart from all this lovely visual and audible inspiration I keep seeing everywhere, walking my way around London has also helped to calm some of the end-of-travelling nerves that strike from time to time.
The concept of reverse culture shock is often discussed among travelling types. For me, it manifests as a stifling, panic rising feeling that I’m missing out on something by not being on the move in another country. That if I’m not living and learning and exploring in a foreign setting then what am I really doing?
Luckily, walking has given me a lot of time to think. As my feet stretch and my calves tighten, as a slow ache creeps across my lower back, I begin to feel better about myself. I know it’s OK not to be travelling all the time. The perpetual highs I feel from constantly exploring can eventually lead to significant lows, and maybe it’s sensible to take a back seat from that emotional rollercoaster now and again.
For now, giving myself a goal like the Camino to work towards is challenging enough. And doing it in the setting of my home city means I get to see a whole new side of London, too.