Walking: Far From Pedestrian

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I’ve taken to walking London for hours. It began as a money-saving gambit: I live on the Central Line in zone 6, so by the Byzantine rules of Oyster, if I stop at Bethnal Green (zone 2) or (before they closed it for three months) took the Overground west from Stratford and hopped off somewhere north of my destination), and then walked from there I would save one shiny pound. Then I started to realise how eminently walkable London was, at least to someone with my absurdly long stride. I can do Bethnal Green to Tottenham Court Road in around 45 minutes; the other day I made it down from Seven Sisters to Old St in under an hour and a half. According to this fantastic map from think outside the tube it can’t take more than around 90 minutes to walk the breadth of zone 1.

But what started as a money-saving strategy has turned into a passion. The social geography of London is piecing together in my mind for the first time. I can feel the shapes of the different paving slabs through the soles of my shoes. The calluses on my feet are getting good and tough again; I’m gaining a sense of the marvellous. Every so often, I’ll be reminded of the everyday horror of the world — a walk between the pretentious arts zones of Hoxton and Southwark took me through the heart of the financial district, which turned out to be a brutalist forest of glass trees and corporate art. I’m not saying that every step of the city is an unbridled joy: the vast majority of it is seedy, dirty, smelly and rather boring. But the sense of the whole, and the sense of belonging to the whole that comes from walking, is something quite lovely.

I’ve no doubt some people have similar experiences cycling, but that always seemed too much like hard work to me. Similarly, jogging and parkour seem dangerously close to exercise and sport — I’ve no doubt people get great pleasure from them, but they’re not for me. But walking is calm, measured, meditative and satisfied without over-straining. You can walk for hours, reach home and not need more than a cup of tea as a reward; if your pace has been suited to your stride, you won’t even feel sweaty. Time seems different when you’re walking: it is passed by step and breath, rather than by discrete durations; it becomes a flow of moments rather than a progression of measurements. Sometimes you can become convinced that the gentle work of your muscles is moving the world around you, rather than moving you around the world.

I want to see how far I can push this. The ArtsAdmin e-digest, which lists everything from obscure live art showings to major funding opportunities, recently contained a small, elliptical advert asking for people to test their walking limit by joining the anonymous poster on day-long walks through the city. Through walking and walking to the point of literal exhaustion, we will

explore the limitations of the body both physically and mentally, walk[ing] to stimulate the mind, forcing a re-examination of the city we inhabit. Walking has the ability to achieve distraction and it will be as much a test of holding onto the notion of le merveilleux as keeping the legs moving.

I’m in dialogue now with the artist: he wants me to be an urban nomad, acting as “one who moves against the grain of governments and others who propose routes, strategies and ways in which to use the city”. By resisting the strategies urban planners employ to funnel foot traffic down expected paths, I will be undergoing “a kind of constant rebelling through peregrination”.

That sounds like a good strategy for life to me, rebelling through peregrination. Walk it off. Keep walking in the direction of home, without ever getting there. Rediscover the possibilities of your feet. Pedestrians of the world unite!

Sorry about the title pun, by the way

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