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The Art of Mindful Walking: how to walk in the city

Adam Ford

15th July, 2011

From towpaths to parks, in this exclusive extract from The Art of Mindful Walking, Londoner Adam Ford says there's just as much pleasure to be had from city strolling as from country hiking

The pavements can be hard and tiring, but walking in a city has more to offer than we imagine. The city is not all streets and pavements; there are parks and public gardens, river walks and canal banks. The richness and variety of experiences per mile in a city can challenge even the most beautiful walk through countryside; and the density of bird life, flowers and trees is a continual surprise.

Famous City Walkers

When you walk through a city, with the purpose of just walking, you join a venerable group of people who have done the same, each with their own particular needs. Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist Christian thinker, who influenced many theologians of my generation, pounded the streets of Copenhagen because he could only think when surrounded by the noise and distractions of the city. Charles Dickens, even more famously, would walk at night, sometimes tramping through to dawn. He craved violent exercise ‘to still his beating mind’ and calm his restless energy. The writing of Bleak House made him so anxious he had to take regular 20-mile walks through the city in order to quieten or exhaust his restless spirit.

Pounding the city streets

For many people, the thought never seems to occur that the city is a great place for walking. They imagine that you have to get out of the city, away from the noise, the traffic and the fumes and head for the countryside where birds sing and brooks sparkle. They could not be more wrong.

Of course it's great to get out into the open country, but I do know people who have made the exodus, lock, stock and barrel, and found themselves living by fields with barbed-wire fences, bad-tempered farmers with locked gates and inaccessible lanes, muddy tracks waiting to drag the unwary into glutinous depths, and only a main road to walk on, dominated by speeding commuters all hell-bent on driving a walker up the bank. Come back to the peace, calm and birdsong of the city – and all its other attractions! You only have to know where to look.

Any good bookshop in a city will have a travel section and a selection of books on walking in the area. You can explore whatever takes your fancy, from a tour of architecture to a crawl round the best pubs; from recent history to ancient archaeology. The ghosts of the city are waiting for you at every corner. Only on foot can you meet them properly.
I have one such guide in my hand now: Walking the London Scene; Five Walks in the Footsteps of the Beat Generation, by Sydney R Davies. Here you can follow Kerouac, in thought, into the old, now demolished, King Lud pub at Ludgate Circus ‘for a sixpenny Welsh rarebit and a stout’ (it would cost him a bit more now!).

Look Up!
If I had to give one piece of advice on city walking, it would be: ‘Look up!’ It is easy to be distracted on the street by the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, the hassle of the traffic, the need to get from here to there; the shop windows and the captivating smells; the coffee shops, the soap shops, the passing perfumes and cigars. We get caught up in a two-metre layer of fascinating, noisy, human activity. Look at the rooftops and gables, the detailed ornamentation around the windows; the carved brickwork and statues; the tiling and chimney design; the clocks and stained glass high above street level. Someone has designed and created every feature, with care and skill. They deserve to have their work admired from the pavement. No one needs to be an architect to appreciate it all.

Every city has its own unique character and, by looking up, you begin to acquire a taste for the differences. No city I know demands more that the pedestrian look up than New York. I doubt if anyone can walk down Fifth Avenue without raising the eyes and gasping at the astonishing world soaring hundreds of feet above street level. The buildings draw the eye up above the taxis and flashing lights at pedestrian crossings. Art deco challenges mock gothic across the street; ornamental brick vies with glass; pinnacles, towers and gargoyles seem to dream of another era and of another place, a high-up world where the sun sets later than it does down on the pavement.

The radial walk: starting from home

The great thing about the radial city walk is that it always starts at your own front door. The city is spread out around you; your home, as far as you are concerned, is at the heart of it. Whatever your area – centre, suburb, west end or city block – your home is the pivot, the axis; the place you look out from; from here you view the city both in your mind and through your windows. From your point of view, your perspective, the city extends in every direction away from your home. This is where your mind always comes home to roost. So, you shut your door and, given the state of things today, probably lock it, and set off walking in any direction. You may have packed some sandwiches, an apple and a flask of coffee; or you may have decided to travel light and hope to find a cafe or a pub at the right time. Finding food and drink is not a problem in a city. It would be advisable to consult a tube, bus or train map and timetable before setting off on your urban adventure. One of the bonuses of city walking is the ease with which you can get home in time for tea or a shower and your own bed; it depends only on a little planning. Very quickly you are likely to find yourself walking through unfamiliar streets, never-seen-before alleyways, and aspects of the city you never realised were so close to home.

Waterways

My own walks in London tended to follow waterways. I lived for thirty years in Hammersmith, not far from the river. Walks took me upstream or downstream by the Thames, winter or summer, rain or shine; always beginning at my own front door. The Thames changes daily with the tides, flooding the towpath beneath the poplars and willows, or revealing muddy gravel beds at low water: always busy with tourist ferries, rowing boats, sailing boats, energetic individuals sculling, or teams pulling in eights, encouraged loudly by their coaches alongside. As you walk, joggers may pass by (some intense, red-faced, and oblivious to the river, looking as though the exercise is doing them more harm than good!), and cyclists will tinkle their bells at the last minute, making you jump. But the river path is a great place for appreciating nature at its best and most beautiful. The light on the Thames is wonderfully and infinitely variable, from cold, grey and choppy, to ice blue, or pink, mauve and flame at sunset; a rich fluid spectrum of living colour. The flowing river is a balm to the mind.

Urban Towpaths
A river enhances a city tremendously. A canal system does the same and presents another ideal opportunity for an urban walk. Like the Thames, the canals have great towpaths and easy, level walking. Surprisingly, you meet few people, as though the canal were secret; and yet the canals of London run through the most populated areas. The towpath is flat and broad, wide enough for a horse from the days when they towed barges from lock to lock.

My own aim was to use the canals to walk radially to the fringes of London, and I managed to do so in several directions to beyond the M25 orbital road. It is pleasing now to drive this motorway and recollect the canals that inhabit a totally different world beneath the carriageway. Banks of buddleia, hawthorn and dog rose overflow onto the towpath, swans glide by quietly, while the owners of long boats laze on the bank by their moorings. It is all so different from the roaring traffic above.

 I walked along these canal towpaths in stages, completing a section at a time. So, for example, I got up early one day and walked out to Uxbridge to have lunch with my daughter Natasha, who worked in an office there; I followed the Thames as far as Kew then turned up the Grand Union canal to Uxbridge. It was spring and the canal path was edged with a rich tapestry of flowers – some wild, some exotic escapees from neighbouring gardens. A kingfisher flew ahead of me part of the way, a flash of electric blue darting along the canal to a new low perch over the water. I picked up a couple of iced buns from an early opening bread shop in Brentford, to keep up my energy levels. Nineteenmiles, to a regular foot-beat, in time for lunch at one o’clock. I have to admit it was hard to stand up after steak and chips at the pub, and Natasha had to walk her stiff-legged dad to the station to catch the tube back to Hammersmith!

A week later I took the tube back out to Uxbridge, enjoyed breakfast with my daughter, and walked the Grand Union Canal up to Watford; a week after that completing the next section from Watford to Hemel Hempstead, smiling contentedly as I walked beneath the M25 and quickly left the heavy hum of traffic behind me.

Countryside in the City
The canals have so much to offer the walker. They are as rich in an abundance of birds, flowers, trees or butterflies as anywhere in the countryside. And yet they cut right through the city and some of its most romantic parts. In London you can walk around the north of Regent’s Park and the zoo, or through the dockland at Limehouse; through Camden market or behind warm-smelling bread bakeries where rosebay willowherb runs riot along the embankment. Allotments back on to the canal in many places, each a small, tidy world of its own, where people delight in the outdoors and in growing their own fresh produce. Wherever a road crosses the canal there is almost invariably a pub; and the walker is never far from a transport system: you can get home in no time at all.

Race and religion - a cultural mix

Some of the great pleasures of walking, particularly in cities, are the chance encounters with other people. ‘Don’t ask him, love – he’s from Bermondsey!’ jibbed the landlady, to much laughter in the pub, when I was once asking directions back to the river.

There are no complications, no expectations; you don’t exchange phone numbers or even names, just the pleasure of talking briefly to another human being. We are all foreigners in the colourful racial mix of the modern city, something worth celebrating and enjoying – the different languages, customs, beliefs and facial features. When Hebrew nomads, almost four thousand years ago, wandered into the great city of Babel (near present-day Baghdad), they marvelled at its towering ziggurat, and were shocked by the variety of different languages. They concluded that God must have cursed the city. But now we can see this racial mixture as a potential blessing, a gift. We know the worst – the slums, the squalor, the degradation and poverty (we have read our Dickens; seen the bustees of Mumbai, the shanty towns of Nairobi). We have also experienced the best, the rich life and the tremendous potential. Human culture is a group activity; we are social animals. The best in us emerges when we work together. We should walk along with open eyes, mindful of all its rich possibilities.

The spiritual melting pot

Mosques, synagogues, churches, temples – they stand cheek by jowl in a city.  What can we conclude about religious truth, when there are so many contradictory traditions rubbing shoulders? Some atheists take the view that this proves that they must all be wrong, and that a person’s beliefs have less to do with truth than with where they were born. Children born in Ireland will probably become Roman Catholic; those born in Saudi Arabia will become Muslim. They then bring their faiths with them when they migrate to the city. Of course the geographical observation is true, but the atheist conclusion, to my mind, is naive. Religious belief systems illustrate our human desire to make sense of who we are and why we are here. They are culturally diverse attempts to put into words half-grasped insights into our condition. At one level they may contradict each other. Yet at a deeper level they are trying to elucidate our value and our place, and come from the same searching source within. They each shine with a fragment of truth. And the opposite of a profound truth does not have to be a falsehood – it may be another (apparently contradictory) profound truth. Far from proving atheism, the religious differences we find as we walk through the modern city reinforce the importance of religious belief. They raise the wonderful possibility that we might in time find a common language of faith.

The Art of Mindful Walking: Meditations on the Path by Adam Ford (£7.99, Leaping Hare) is available from Amazon

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