I don’t think anyone hit the nail on the head as much as Solnit in her book ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’ when it comes to describing and, as I often find myself doing, explaining the joys of walking. In particular, city walking.
I am as happy as the next person when it comes to a 3 hour woodland trek or half day mountain climb, but give me a city brimming with history and architecture, my headphones and only my internal compass to rely on and you won’t see me for the rest of the day.
Solnit’s book bought it home for me again when she speaks of the lone walker as “both present and detached, more than an audience but less than a participant. Walking assuages or legitimises this alienation.”
The idea of ‘alienation’ resonated with me. When living in London, any given day would arrive and restlessness would smother me. A world of thoughts and should haves, could haves, must haves would hijack my mind and all I could think to do was to get out and walk, to get out and just be. I would alienate myself from the furore of life, oddly by immersing myself in the thick of it.
I liked the feel of the pavement under my feet, the city smells, the towering buildings, the jostle of people, but I wasn’t a part of it. I was detached. I was my own world amongst many other worlds and I would walk myself to exhaustion only to arrive home once more, leg muscles shaking and my soul full.
My love for movement and discovery is readily available to explain why I will leave the house immediately after breakfast and not return until past dinner time. It might not so easily explain that one time I determinedly walked from my apartment in Borough, forged a path along the river Thames, to find myself in Richmond. With wild deer and a grey sky for company instead of sky scraping office blocks or black wrought iron fences guarding expensive homes.
Ask me the public transport links in any of the cities I’ve visited and I’ll be hazy in my responses, but ask me how I walked there and I’ll happily whisk you away in a tale of cobbled streets and antique lamp posts, men with thick eyebrows and women with slender ankles, children with rosy cheeks, weathered bicycles, shiny cars and low flying birds, and of architecture for miles. Whenever a friend has come to London they come my way, asking for directions, the best things to do in the city. My response has always been to simply walk and let the city give itself back to you. You will never be finished with a good city, and walking is one of the best ways to begin to uncover some of its secrets.
Will my way of pedestrian travel be the quickest route to the destination? Naturally the answer to the question lies in the assumption that there ever was a destination to begin with. The short answer is always no.
Walking a city is about so much more than arriving somewhere. Surrender to it.