Walks Past – February 2007, London

In early 2007, I had to fly to London for business meetings, so I timed it to arrive on a Saturday to give time to shake off the jet lag before meetings started on the Monday.

That Sunday turned out to be gloriously warm for the time of year and it called for a good walk. I was staying in Holborn, on Great Queen Street, and that central location meant that I could explore in any direction. I decided to revisit our old neighbourhood in Kensington where we had lived in the late 1990s.

Setting out early on a Sunday morning and walking through Covent Garden and on through Leicester Square to Picadilly gave me a chance to revel in moral superiority – you pass many a bar that had been crowded the night before, and many a staggering thick-headed reveller just headed home. The tourists were out as they always are in central London, and our years living in the city gave me that sense of being a Londoner with the right to look down my nose at them.

Walking on a sunny day is most fun when it’s relaxed and meandering. I followed no particular plan, other than generally wandering west, and after awhile I found myself at Marble Arch having travelled up Regent Street and along Oxford Street. From Marble Arch I decided to go south through Hyde Park and aim for Knightsbridge Road and then west onto Brompton Road to pass Harrods. By then I knew I was getting anxious to see our old place, so I kept going along Brompton past the V&A and along Cromwell Road. West from there took me to Gloucester Road where I turned north and walked up to Kynance Mews.

Entering that little street brought a rush of wonderful memories – the house looked just the same, pale yellow paint and the planters out front. I stood for a moment to take it in, and then moved on, feeling self-conscious for having stood staring.

I kept going through the Mews and meandered north and west through the back streets of Kensington past Kensington Square and up to Kensington High Street. Lunch was a sandwich from Marks & Spencer – those were always a guilty pleasure. You have to try the cheese & pickle or the egg salad to know what I mean.

From the High Street, I started back east towards Kensington Gardens and on into Hyde Park to walk along the Serpentine. There were a benches for resting and basking in February sun, young couples with strollers, older ladies with dogs, and early spring flowers poking through. It was magical. We had moved to London in January 1997 and that year had featured an unseasonably warm winter. We thought it was normal to see daffodils so early and only with the return of a regular winter the following year did we learn that a more typical January in London was grey, wet, dreary, and cold.

That February day was bittersweet – we had toyed with the idea of staying in London but eventually grew homesick after a few years. And yet, the moment we arrived back to Toronto (on July 1, Canada Day, no less) we kicked ourselves and wanted to return. We missed London terribly for years afterwards, and only the arrival of our son a few years later settled us back into Toronto. Wandering Kensington on a sunny winter’s day brought back that homesickness, but this time for London.

After a proper wallow in melancholy, it was time to keep wandering, and my steps took me back to Marble Arch and on to Oxford Street. By then it was getting late and dark, so I went into Selfridges to raid the food hall for a takeaway feast and a nice bottle of wine, and closed my day in style watching snooker on the telly back at the hotel.

You can’t go home again. I learned that twice, once returning to Toronto from London, and again that day. Walks can create memories, and sometimes they can unleash them.

Walks Past – June 1994, London

In 1994 I took on a consulting gig that gave me my first chance to visit London. I flew over in June for a 4-month gig, based to the south of the City in a suburb called Whyteleafe, on the A22 close to the M25. The first weekend I had free, I jumped onto an early train into the City and stepped off at Blackfriars. I had never been to London before and yet I felt I knew it through things I had read – the London of Sherlock Holmes and of Rumpole of the Bailey; the London of the Blitz during the Second World War; and the London of finance as described in The Economist.

So off I set on a ramble. That walk had been building in me for 30 years, though I probably didn’t realize it then.

I remember being full of energy when I stepped off the train. I remember being within a whisker of getting wiped out by a bus because I looked left instead of right at a crosswalk. I remember being self-conscious as a tourist and dreading being called out as such.

London is my favourite walking city in the world. There is history, life, and energy on literally every corner. I think I could fetch up nearly anywhere within 10k of Trafalgar Square and have fun walking around. Since that day in 1994, I’ve had the chance to live in London and it just reinforced what I felt that day.

Upon arriving I walked from Blackfriars Station east into the City, I suppose on Cannon Street, towards Monument tube station and then back west towards St. Pauls Cathedral. I toured the cathedral and climbed into the dome for a view over the city. I walked west again from there into Westminster along Fleet Street and then the Strand. I chased the pigeons at Trafalgar, waved a salute to the maple leaf flag at Canada House, and stood next to St. Martins-in-the-Field church and wondered about the name since it’s nowhere near a field. I walked along the Mall and past Buckingham Palace and through Green Park to Hyde Park Corner and the Wellington Arch. I walked through Knightsbridge to Harrods. I walked from Harrods through Belgravia into Sloane Place, and then I walked on through Pimlico to Victoria Station to catch the train back to Whyteleafe.

Along the way, I stopped for a coffee and a bite in the City and discovered the joys of flapjacks. I stopped for a pint somewhere along Fleet Street and had a ploughmans’s lunch. I stopped at Harrods in the food hall and had oysters and a glass of Meurseault – which at the time, seemed to me to be the height of sophistication.

I’m sure I did more than 10k that day, and probably closer to 15k. I arrived around 9am and didn’t get back to Whyteleafe until after 8pm, utterly knackered and deeply in love with London. That walk is #1 on my list of all-time favourites, and if you said to me tomorrow, you have one walk left in your life, I’d say I’ll do that one again – from Blackfriars to Victoria. Samuel Johnson said that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life, and that’s London for me – a banquet from which I never want to stop feasting.