“London is a riddle.” – G. K. Chesterton
It all started when my train was cancelled. I found the one that was a dead cert for getting into London and hopped on it, arriving in the city four and a half hours before I was due to meet my friend. As the train got closer and closer to its destination, I found myself staring out of the window. I’d been reading the rest of the way but then there I was, my eyes flickering around the scene like it was the first time I’d seen it.
A plane banks and takes off into the horizon. People are hanging sheets out on their tiny balconies. Graffiti peppers the walls, and Tower Bridge peeks above blocks of flats. Then the Gherkin swims into view and the train stops at London Bridge. I get off and by the time I’m out of the station, stood beneath the Shard, I have decided on a plan of action – I am going to walk though London and fall in love with the city all over again.
Deciding to head west, I trip down steps and through Borough Market, where my nostrils are attacked immediately by traders setting up their stalls, some serving up cooked breakfasts and baps, others offering all manner of cheeses and spices. It is still early, the market not yet in full swing, so I slip on through and am suddenly face to face with the Golden Hinde, the galleon owned by Sir Francis Drake and an easy reminder of the city’s long history. Anywhere else it might look out of place, but in London, it looks right at home.
I slip down Clink Street, past the prison museum and notice, for the first time in my life, a skeleton hanging in a cage above the entrance. Was that always there? Is it real? I trot along Bankside; St Paul’s visible ahead, the Shard already seeming far behind. Cranes speckle the skyline, adding a never-ending string of finishing touches to the city. I’m suddenly outside the Globe Theatre, a replica built to honour William Shakespeare and his work. I admire the strangeness of Millennium Bridge, a bridge unlike any others that crosses the Thames as of yet, and avoid looking at the Tate Modern. I quite like it from the outside, but what happens inside is of no concern to me – I don’t understand it.
A lone human statue, spray-painted silver and hovering in a seated position comes into view and I march past, no longer as impressed as I once was when I first saw one of these. Under Blackfriars Bridge, and then past London Television Centre, where a soundstage of leather sofas is being set up on the side of the river for This Morning, a crowd of people gathered to see who’s going to be sat on them.
A man walks past me chatting into his phone speaking a language that sounds more like Simlish than anything else, a sudden reminder that London is a city made up of people from all over the world with every kind of background. To aid this point I note Cleopatra’s Needle on the other side of the Thames, another artefact brought here from a different time and place. London is a city where all of time and space is trying to happen at once, held together – just about – by copious amounts of duct tape and hope. No wonder the Doctor spends so much time here.
The bookshop under Waterloo Bridge is only just setting up – I’m too early – so I make do with a trip into Foyle’s instead. I buy a book, because I can’t not, and resume my walk. On the northern bank of the Thames is a building that looks like a Bavarian castle; a thought passes through my mind that I’ve no idea what it is. Back on the Southbank, I approach the London Eye, a singer belting out a rock song of his own devising on one side; a performer dressed as Charlie Chaplin taking photos with a tourist on the other. Tourists are suddenly now everywhere and I can no longer walk in a straight line – I dodge, duck and weave and emerge on Westminster Bridge.
A friend of mine has recently got a job in the Houses of Parliament, so I text and ask if he can escape to see me, but he’s in a meeting and there won’t be a reunion today. I cross the bridge anyway, MI6 in the distance, one of the most obvious secret buildings in the world. I loop around Parliament Square, observing the statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Peel, Disraeli and others, discovering for the first time that Abraham Lincoln has a statue here too. Why? I sit for a little and then continue on, pounding the streets between the Supreme Court and Westminster Abbey, sure that I’ve never been up this road before.
The Duck Tour bus comes down the road, heading for the river. An Indian family get out of a car, having apparently found the last parking space in the city. Anyone who drives in London is far braver than me. I’m now at St James’s Park tube station, a station that I have no memory of, apparently one of the few in Zone One that I’ve never used. Not much further on is the ever-spinning sign of New Scotland Yard, a place I’ve never seen in person, only on television.
I pass into Pimlico now, through a street market selling cheap trainers and expensive sandwiches, and then past the offices of Channel 4, a massive number four outside, towering over taxis dropping people off. I keep walking, now not sure where I’m going at all, but pressing on regardless. I somehow loop and I’m heading back towards the river, but I don’t mind, I let my feet take me where they need to. Before I know it I’m back at the Thames, on the north bank this time, MI6 and St George’s Wharf now dominating the skyline.
I keep on west, the smell of salt water reminding me that we’re not actually that far from the sea, comparatively, and at this point the river is still tidal. I walk past some houses, right on the riverside, presumably worth millions. One has an unusual sundial on the wall, and a chess set with intricately carved figures set up in the window. I contemplate taking a picture, but the Private Property sign makes me think twice.
I move to a street further from the river and suddenly every road and building has the word Grosvenor in it – I’m into a seriously posh bit of London. I wonder now whether I most want to end up at Agatha Christie’s Chelsea home, or beneath the watchful gaze of the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus in Kensington. As I think, I spot a set of stands that should contain hire bikes, but there is only one left. On the road, a man opens a van and begins to unload the bikes, setting them up. It’s only then that I look up and see the towering face of Battersea Power Station on the other side of the river. It hits me now just how far I’ve walked and I look at my watch. I’ve been walking for nearly three hours. I’m meant to meet my friend shortly, and we’re meeting in Canary Wharf. I can’t walk back that far. I check a map and move to Victoria, the closest tube station.
I walk past houses I’ll never be able to afford, find a statue of Thomas Cubitt that seems to have been swallowed up by the city and most people probably have no clue is there, and wonder absently what’s going on behind the curtains. I cross Lupus Street, wondering if it was named for the disease and, if it was, why, and then am engulfed by the pervasive smell of a Subway, just before passing the Queen Mother Sports Centre, a name which conjures up a hilarious image of the dear old Queen Mum in all her finery on a treadmill.
At Victoria I grab a sandwich and mill among the people, then descend beneath the city to find a tube station. If it was hot above ground, it’s nothing compared to the fetid, stale air of the underground system today. As I reach the bottom of the escalator, there’s a crash and I look up to see a woman’s shopping trolley has upturned itself on the ascending escalator and is spilling shopping down the steps. Enough people run to assist her which means I don’t have to feel guilty about not helping. I think briefly of the stereotype that Londoners are unfriendly and ignorant. I don’t think it’s true, never really have.
The tube journey is uneventful otherwise. I change once at Green Park and power on to Canary Wharf, where I mooch around the shops in the underground mall for a little bit, joining the businessmen and women on their lunch breaks in what seems to be their own private part of the city. Eventually I find a seat in a bar with the wonderful name of Smollensky’s and await my friend’s arrival. My feet hurt, but I am happy.
My mission was to fall in love with the city again, and I absolutely did that. I saw things I’d never seen before, encountered old things for the thousandth time, and generally let my mind wander as far as my feet. So I’ve started this blog to talk about all things London, to explore its streets, buildings, history, people, culture, parks and everything else besides. It’s a city I think I know well, but here’s where I put that knowledge to the test.
Join me, won’t you?