One of the perverse effects of lockdown was to get people walking more. Public transport was off-limits, but exercise and a change of scenery was necessary to stave off cabin fever, so citizens of the capital found themselves strolling the city streets in a way they hadn’t before, with many taking the opportunity to look around them and savour the experience.
This is a great way for London to show off its greatest treasures. One of the joys of the city, unplanned as it is, comes in the unexpected discoveries and hidden wonders a walker can find. The Square Mile is especially full of such sights — I’m always delighted by the way that St Paul’s cathedral seems to leap out from behind other buildings or at unexpected angles, a reminder of the enduring beauty of Wren’s creation.
We need to do more of this. The Tube map, that stroke of intuitive genius by Harry Beck, is, for once, our enemy here: Beck’s inspired realisation was that, for using the Tube, the relative scale of the terrain above ground was irrelevant, and the network could be presented as a wiring diagram. Mostly that is a godsend, but for those who want to stretch their legs, it is deadly, the iconic map giving no sense of how long journeys on foot might be.
There is another way. Footways, a social enterprise which promotes walking, has created a new walking map to connect major hubs with locations of interest and allow those travelling in London to enjoy the sights. The idea is that attractions can be worked into a journey or savoured as a destination, showing off the capital’s culture, history and hospitality.
As the summer sun battles its way through stubborn clouds, we should embrace the idea of the stroll. Let us unleash our inner boulevardier. London has enough jewels to sate the heartiest appetite: the Temple of Mithras, which lies underneath Bloomberg’s HQ; the magnificent Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich; the Potter-esque eateries of Neal’s Yard; or the riot of colour at the Columbia Road flower market in Bethnal Green.
Life is best lived as a series of incremental gains. Find a pair of shoes that are comfortable but retain the level of glamour you want. Perhaps — a long-standing campaign of mine — invest in a hat; I suggest a panama to keep the sun off. Slap on the sunscreen. And go for a walk. It needn’t be some forced march against the brutal clock of your step count; but it will make you healthier, whether you like it or not. Stop in a café you haven’t visited before and give them the benefit of your custom. Pause a while and read that book you’ve been meaning to tackle, or perhaps do battle with the crossword.
We should travel in London less transactionally, and find time in our crowded schedules to enjoy the experience. After all, we live in the greatest city on earth, and it seems a shame always to scurry beneath it to make a journey.
Little things. Baby steps. None is time-consuming, none is daunting, but taken together they will make your life just that little bit more pleasant. And in this uncertain, brutal and frightening world, isn’t that what we all need?