If you believe the statistics, by the middle of this century no one – and I mean no one – will walk anywhere much. Granted, they’ll waddle from their self-driving cars to their chair lifts, but the notion of undertaking a routine journey on foot will seem hopelessly recherché. Of course, there will still be walking as a leisure activity, and indeed it’s been burgeoning throughout our own era: you now cannot set foot in an area nominated as being of “outstanding natural beauty” without finding a lot of other people standing out there already.
But there’s an alternative, a cool way to walk straight out of your front door. Over 90% of Britons live in urban areas, but apart from walking the dog or exercising the children, few of us think about our immediate purlieu as a resource that can refresh us physically, aesthetically and even spiritually. I expect some of you are thinking: “He hasn’t been round my way, or he’d know how ridiculous that sounds.” Let me assure you: I live in a fairly unlovely quarter of south London, surrounded by late Victorian dormitory streets and interwar council estates, yet there’s nothing I’d rather do than pace its pavements for the umpteenth time.
Why? Well, for a start, if you walk in the town or city where you actually reside you don’t run the risk of getting stuck in a traffic jam, which is what happened to me and my family the last time we set off for a nice country walk. Then there’s a way of approaching urban walking that makes it potentially fascinating, no matter how unlovely your surroundings. The surrealist poet Louis Aragon wrote a famous book called Le Paysan de Paris; in it he describes how at unexpected moments during such a promenade, the walker, if sufficiently alive to the nuances of place and atmosphere, can experience the “moment”. What exactly this “moment” is can seem a little obscure, but in essence it’s the ambulatory equivalent of the sort of insights the surrealists believed they received from dreams, séances, automatic writing and other methods they used to short-circuit the deadening influence of rationality.
Those in the grip of the “moment” cease to suspend disbelief in all the purely contingent and ephemeral aspect of the urban scene; instead they grasp its essence – and its essential weirdness: These great termite heaps of people, all scurrying this way and that – how do they function? What are they for? Once you’ve been in the moment, even staring at a rusting coal hopper next to a dank canal can seem a numinous experience. I mean, is that a coal hopper? Or a portal to some ulterior world?
However, for those who seek a more conventional outing here are a few suggestions about how you can get the best out of an urban hike.
Writer Cyril Connolly once said: “No city should be so large that a man can’t walk out of it in half a day.” Unfortunately, most of the built-up areas we infest are considerably larger (it takes a full day to walk from central London to green fields; I know because I’ve done it several times). But just because you can’t experience the contrast between the dense artificiality of the city, and the slightly less dense artificiality of the countryside it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to juxtapose human and physical geography: get a good map, identify high points in the city that provide good views, or rivers and canals that provide off-road routes; configure a route that enables you to appreciate the underlying topography of the townscape, while affording you the occasional bosky interlude, such as a park or a stretch of waste ground.
I suppose you might have expected me to suggest that you read up on the architecture of your locale; that you visit some celebrated buildings or other sites, and make yourself familiar with local history. Well, none of this is essential, although it’s all grist to the whirring mill of the urban perambulator’s brain. And if you want some inspiration or help with your planning and guidance along the way, this selection of ready-routed city walks is just what you need.
Also remember: in urban walking there’s no Gore-Tex necessarily involved (though at this time of year you might want to take a mac); and neither do you have to boil up a manky cup of tea on a portable stove. In the city we have places called cafes – and some serve excellent coffee.
Source: The Guardian
By: Will Self
February 1, 2015