Why Walk?

I have been contacted by an Urban Studies student called George who has asked my opinion and thoughts on a number of issues around walking.

Now as a Blue Badge Guide, I guide on foot, on a coach, I lead tours of galleries and heritage sites, and walks all over London.

I enjoy all of it, but walking tours have a special place n my heart, and it was partly due to my long established habit of walking around London’s neighbourhoods that I trained as a guide in the first place.

George is particularly interested to know my thoughts in relation to one particular walk that I have developed: the Elephant and Castle.

As it happens, I shall be leading this walk on Saturday 2nd September at 2pm as part of this year’s Elefest.

The Elephant has changed enormously since since I first started to explore it nearly four decades ago when I moved into a flat nearby, just down the road in Walworth. I remember the feeling of surprise and shock to find prefab homes in the shadow of what must have been London’s most uninviting hotel, the London Park. Much later when I read of that building’s history I learned to respect it and even felt sorry when it was pulled down.

You see far more on two wheels than you do on four, but walking puts you in touch with your environment in a much more immediate way. Partly it’s to do with the speed. You notice the plants in people’s gardens, the style of curtains affected by people in different neighbourhoods, the potholes in the roads, the litter on the pavements; the new front door. You acquire a more intimate understanding than your wheeled peers.

The more you walk the same streets the more you learn their nuances. You see the subtle changes that come with the year’s seasons; the telltale signs of new investment; the pubs that have been turned into flats; the new market stall holders; the graffiti; the corner shops that close; the bars that open; the elderly person who suddenly is no longer about; the young boys doing wheelies on their bikes as they transition to adolescence. You are a witness.

In my mind’s eye I have a speeded up record of the years. I can see my younger self pacing along, looking around me. That younger self has disappeared but the traces of her are still in the air, as are the traces of all the other people who have walked these streets. By talking about them, by finding out about some of the people who were here long before us, we keep something of them alive. We allow them to walk in our imaginations, to see something of the neighbourhood they saw. Our environment is many layered. It is not just the here and now but a sort of Russian doll of all its various incarnations.

Each generation shapes where it lives, but it’s never a tabula rasa, much though some developers would like it to be. The past has ways of forcing itself into the present however much we try to write it out of the picture. And memory will often not be denied. So I can walk down a street where everything looks very clean and neat, and remember it was the place where I first saw meths drinkers. They have gone, but whatever neighbourhood you are in there is always a juxtaposition at some point of ease and hardship.

Developers plans always show sunny days and blue skies; well fed, happy people enjoying their lives in urban utopias. The reality is very different, and much more interesting when you start looking.

I am only just beginning to try to articulate answers to some of George’s questions, so I hope to continue writing those thoughts here.

In the meantime should George or anyone else like to contribute his or her own thoughts that would be very welcome.

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