I was already halfway to London before I started thinking about what I would do there. It wasn't as random a journey as this sounds, I'd arranged to meet my sister Terri for a meal & a catch-up and decided that I might as well take advantage of the Great Metropolis while I was up there so I booked a ticket that would give me hours of free time before our scheduled rendezvous. But as I watched the fields & towns fly by I realised that there wasn't anything I felt particularly drawn to - the 'attractions' would still be filled with tourists, I didn't have any shopping needs (even frivolous ones) and I didn't want to travel far outside the centre. Had I become so jaded that there was nothing to tempt me in this vast city?
I'd been going through a period of ennui & listlessness at home, it had been nearly three months since I'd left my last job and so far had been unable to find another one. At first I'd loved the space this had left in my life and had been out & about visiting friends, exploring Wiltshire on my bike and generally Doing Stuff but as the time had dragged on (and the weather closed in) I'd found my enthusiasm draining and was spending more & more time at home. Even here I was settling into lethargy, the routine tasks & chores were getting done but the final steps in personalising my home kept being deferred & postponed, my decision making drive & confidence just wasn't there. My redundancy payment & savings were keeping the wolf from the door so I didn't even have the urgency of need to push me forward.
So in some ways it wasn't a surprise that I'd set off with nothing planned. There was a nice chunk of time for something spontaneous to jump into but it was going to have to do it without much help from me.
As we pulled into Paddington nothing had sprung to mind but it was a nice sunny day so I decided to take a walk rather than descend into the Tube. Which route to take? Hyde Park was just a short distance away and as I thought about it I realised that by choosing my paths carefully I could get most of the way to my rendezvous with Terri through parks and riverside walkways. A countryside walk through Central London? It was an intriguing idea so I set off for Lancaster Gate, the nearest entry to Hyde Park.
The Italian Gardens, Hyde Park
More of the Italian Gardens
Entering the park I found myself in the Italian Gardens, not somewhere I'd visited before. The information boards said they were created as a gift from Prince Albert to Victoria which made me envisage an awkward Christmas exchange:
My dear I've had a set of ornamental water gardens crafted for you at the head of the Serpentine.
Oh. I got you cufflinks.
There was a scattering of people around the formal ponds, mostly non-English speakers busily taking pictures of each other or solitary readers on the benches. The soft splashing from the fountains and occasional waft of unfamiliar tongues somehow added to the peace & stillness, blurrily masking the traffic noise from nearby Bayswater Road and isolating the garden from the surrounding city. Easy to imagine myself in some posh country seat.
The crisp autumnal sunlight brought out the best in the semi-formal setting and before long I was reaching for my iPhone to capture it in (mega) pixels. Back in the days of Kodachrome I was a keen amateur photographer and would often be found wandering around with a sturdy bag filled with camera bodies, varied lenses and a host of auxiliary paraphernalia, squinting at angles and estimating f stops. About ten years ago I realised that the tide of change was against me and I sold the lot in exchange for a simple digital point & shoot which lasted me until I bought my first iPhone. There are times when I miss the almost infinite possibilities that my old set up afforded me, most often the ability to zoom in and isolate an element from its surroundings, but working within the limitations of the phone's camera has forced me to try different things, think more about broader composition and approach subjects in unconventional ways. And, of course, I almost always have the phone with me so it's easier to grab a chance impression.
Fish wrestling, Hyde Park Rose Garden
Moving on I followed the Long Water to the Serpentine, choosing paths that seemed to lead in a general southwesterly direction towards the far corner of the park. People were clustered along the lakeside but less so on the open grass or under the trees, giving a real feeling of open, almost rural space. I remembered a time, years ago, sitting out on the grass with a dear friend on a hot summer day, talking about everything & nothing, just enjoying this giant garden laid out for us to laze in. There was a pang of nostalgic sadness (she now lives far, far away) but the joy lingered longer as I felt the capacity for these simple pleasures still living within me. Ahhh. I walked on with a gentle smile and was rewarded by so many being reflected back to me.
As I approached Hyde Park Corner the park became busier and more regimented with wider paths bounded by fencing and signs prohibiting all sorts of undesirable behaviour. I saw a delightful stand-off between some toddlers and a squirrel, both sides caught between curiosity & fear of the other as they edged closer then backed off in panic. It was a scene begging to be photographed but an unaccompanied middle-aged man paying close attention to a group of children is fast becoming an unacceptable social situation so I enjoyed the moment and moved on. Sad.
The park is ringed by a sandy, tree-lined bridleway, the dappled light from the interleaved branches adding to the bucolic atmosphere. The traffic noise was starting to reestablish itself as I crossed towards the street but my attention was snagged by an intriguing collection of trellises and I turned back and found my way into the Rose Garden. Not many roses on display in October. There was a strange hush inside the garden, people glanced up at me from the benches as I entered as if I was walking into a church or library, reminding me to respect the stillness. Maybe I just caught it at a particular moment but it felt like another aspect of the park providing respite from the bustle of the city.
As I left the park I was faced with a series of pedestrian crossings to navigate my way across the huge & busy circulatory system, first to get onto the central island and pass under the Wellington Arch, then to get off it again and continue my journey. The arch appeared to be open to visitors but there didn't seem to be access to the top of it which was disappointing, I imagine the views would be spectacular. Having made my way across I found myself in Green Park, the next open space on my route.
After the manicured layout of the Rose Garden and the many different parts of Hyde Park the first impression of Green Park was of unadorned (if well managed) nature - an undulating spread of well trimmed grass shaded by evenly spaced trees. The pathways were straight, A to B connections linking gates, functional transit passages rather than invitations to idly wander. As an idle wanderer I took to the grass and let myself meander in a vaguely eastward direction, trusting in the overall shape of the park to guide me to my nexus.
Forestscape in Green Park
In contrast to Hyde Park this one seemed to be there for Londoners (or at least London workers), most of the people were in office garb and were walking purposefully to some specific destination, the overheard snippets of conversation (to companions or phones) were almost exclusively in English. Traffic sounds from Piccadilly intruded into the rural image and provided a persistent reminder of the surrounding city.
An open glade inside the tree cover was dotted with people laying on the grass and soaking up the rays, not exactly sunbathing (it was a bit cool for that) but definitely basking. One of them was wearing a protective mask over his mouth which was a bit surprising, especially in such a naturalistic setting. It gave me pause for thought, was this one of those early signs of a gradual change in day to day behaviour or an overreaction to media alarmism? Or an individual response to a personal issue, not to be taken out of context? I'm a great believer in observing what's going on around you as a counterbalance to 'accepted wisdom' but as with any system the challenge is to differentiate between trends and outliers.
At the end of the park I skirted Buck House and crossed over to St James's Park
St James's Park
(Although the name is shown this way on all the signs I had to look it up to check about that final trailing s. The most convincing 'rule' I found was to add it if it was actually sounded in speech and as I pronounce it 'jamez-iz' I kept it. Contrast with the home of Newcastle United - nice to see usage trumping grammar rules.)
Horse Guards Parade
I was now back in tourists' London and the paths around the lake were cluttered with people. With a lot of the grassland fenced off there were fewer opportunities for whimsical meanderings and I found myself more clearly focussed on my progress & destination. Following the north side of the lake I made my way round to Horse Guards Road where the green corridor I'd been travelling through came to an end, however with a short detour I reckoned I could get through to the Thames and continue my traffic-free journey.
Cutting across Whitehall I found myself outside a huge Ministry of Defence building with two enormous statues flanking the entrance. The reclining female nudes were stocky & muscular, done in a brutalist, vaguely Soviet (or even Airstrip One) style and looking like something from an almost comically exaggerated Cold War pastiche. Sadly the limitations of my iPhone camera meant I couldn't find an acceptable angle to capture an image but it was interesting to contrast the ease I felt in taking pictures of a Top Secret establishment rather than an innocent snap of a small child.
Golden Jubilee Bridge (west)
With high buildings on one side and tall, dense trees & shrubs on the other Whitehall Gardens had a much more enclosed and intimate feel than the larger parks. Although the lawn area was unfenced people stayed on the paths and tended to sit alone or in pairs on the benches along the sides. There was a sense of Victorian formality to the neatly laid out beds, emphasised by the statues to long-forgotten administrators from the age of Empire (although rechecking my facts I find that one was of William Tyndale). After the wide open spaces of the parks there was a dark and even slightly gloomy atmosphere as I walked through, it was like visiting an old stately home where everything is faded & decaying and it's hard to imagine when it was all new & exciting. Were colonial administrators the rock stars of the 1800's? Or were they just the ones who decided what statues to put up?
My plan at this point was to cross the river on the Hungerford Bridge but when I got there I found that two new bridges had been built either side of it (actually I was only aware of one of them at this point, the other was hidden by the railway bridge that they flank). The Golden Jubilee Bridge (west) gave wonderful views upriver with the London Eye looming on the south side and the Houses of Parliament a bit further away on the north. The bridge itself was a fascinating sight with its asymmetric supports and white geometric suspension cables, especially when contrasted with the solidly Victorian rail crossing right beside it. Once again I found myself in a wonderfully open space in the heart of the city, this time with the Thames breaking up the miles of masonry.
The South Bank
As I arrived on the South Bank I was greeted by one of the scourges of modern urban life - an over-amplified busker. It was a particular shame as it was a song I quite like (Dolphins - originally by Fred Neil, I discovered it via the Billy Bragg cover) but the harsh, tinny & way, way too loud noise coming from the portable amplifier had me fleeing with hands over my ears. I'm normally a big (& supportive) fan of live street music but almost every time I've seen a performer with an amp it's being used to bludgeon the ears of the passing audience, demanding a reaction rather than inviting one. Most of the time it's as annoying as blaring car stereos, as if we didn't have enough noise pollution in our busy lives. Sigh!
Commuter shadows off Waterloo Bridge
Following the river along the south bank kept me away from roads but it was definitely a more urban experience than my parkland paths. Not that this was a bad thing, although not pushed for time I did have a schedule to maintain if I was to meet Terri's train.
Having been snapping away with my iPhone as I walked I found my eyes drawn to all sorts of photographic opportunities. A bright red, wooden sided building by the National Theatre, even more gloriously coloured by the descending late afternoon sun. A lone yucca on the balcony of an otherwise uniformly concrete building. Dozens of big soap bubbles being 'blown' by a guy with an elaborate cats cradle of strings and a large tank of soapy water. A modern reinterpretation of wartime 'Dazzle Ships' camouflage, again sadly too distant to be captured by my fixed focus phone camera. A host of wonders to be tasted and then left behind.
Reaching the Millenium Bridge I recrossed the river and left the open spaces behind me, tracking through tight London streets from St Pauls, through the City to Liverpool Street. An interesting stroll through a part of London that I worked in for many years but no longer part of this narrative.
Downriver from the Millenium Bridge
It had been a nice walk but my mood at the end seemed disproportionately raised - delighting in the variety of sights & impressions, bubbling with tangential thoughts and generally lapping up the Wonders Of The World. What seemed most bizarre was that I'd left space for a spontaneous activity to emerge into and hadn't noticed it happening. I'd not really done very much with my afternoon (apart from covering about six miles) but I'd engaged with it and had spent my time absorbed in the mundane details rather than letting it passively, er, pass. It was as if part of 'me' had lined up an unexceptional task and had then stepped back and let the rest of me find the delights within it. The trick seemed to be getting outside of my usual surroundings where my habitual reactions would lull me into sleepwalking and to trust in my childish curiosity to rise to the occasion. Which it managed to do very successfully. A lesson I shall try to remember. Again.