February 09, 2003

On the niceness of some London walks and the boringness of other London walks

Brian Micklethwait | Best of Transport Blog | Brians Odyssey

As my train approached Clapham Junction on December 20th 2002, I faced what was perhaps the most complex and multidimensional decision of my entire journey.

When departing from London to Egham, choosing to leave from Victoria is a relatively easy decision. Victoria is quite near to my home (although not very near) while Waterloo is quite a walk. The trains go direct from Waterloo to Egham, while departing from Victoria means changing at Clapham Junction. But trains are very frequent from Victoria to Clapham, and someone can usually tell you which is the next to leave, so I end up catching a train at Clapham that I might have missed had I walked all the way to Waterloo. So, easy decision. Walk to Victoria, get the next train to Clapham, proceed to Egham.

But when returning to London the decision, as I approach Clapham Junction, about whether to get off there, and if so whether to proceed then to Vauxhall (by a later Waterloo train which also stops as Vauxhall) or to Victoria, is more complicated. When I approach Clapham, I am already on a train that is going to Waterloo. I won't have to wait for it. Therefore, the total time to get home might be less if I proceed to Waterloo than if I change and go to Vauxhall and then walk across Vauxhall Bridge to my home, or go to Victoria and walk the somewhat longer walk back from Victoria to home.

In the end what decided me was not guesses about time, but feelings about which walks are pleasing and which ones aren't. Does walking, and the subtleties of which walks are nice and which not so nice count as "transport", and accordingly as a proper subject for this blog? Maybe not directly, but walking competes with "transport", if the distance involved is short. And walking gets you to transport, so it's clearly a part of the story.

Anyway, the truth is that, of these three walks, although Waterloo to home is the longest and Vauxhall to home is probably the shortest, Victoria to home is by far my favourite.

You may think that odd. The two discarded walks both involve walking across one of two famous Thames bridges (Westminster and Vauxhall) while being able to look at one of the great tourist views of the world, never mind London, namely the Houses of Parliament as viewed from the river. The walk from Victoria to home, in contrast, is along a pretty dingy street until I reach the happy bustle of Warwick Way, and then home either along Vauxhall Bridge Road, or in parallel to that in Vincent Square. No picture postcard views there, except the miracle of the distant towers of Parliament – Big Ben and the other one – with the London Wheel in between them, now distantly visible from Vincent Square now that the three slabs of the Department of the Environment have been removed. I used to like these slabs, but have to admit that what I now see is prettier.

But so what? Walking pleasure in London is, if you are a Londoner, an elusive thing, not at all the same as tourist walking in a city that is foreign to you. If you know your way around the little streets with their jammed together shops (often still open quite late in the evening) threading your through these byways can be far more pleasurable than walking along the tourist highways, and across the vast and vacuous roundabouts and shopless and dead pavements that these highways often consist of. I've seen the Houses of Parliament. Seeing it yet again means little, on a drizzly evening.

Worse, the grander and more distant the vista facing a pedestrian, the more slowly the view changes and the more slowly you feel as if you are moving. As you trudge across your bridge, you tell yourself you should be enjoying it, but the reality is you are counting the yards for the ordeal to end. Big Ben inches with agonised slowness across your field of vision, and time drags by. Evening staring at Big Ben for minute after minute is, in the end, just clock watching, and clock watching is not something you do when you are happy. But when you stride along the cracked and ugly pavements of Little Shop Street, which is but a few yards wide, the nearby scene is a constant buzz of new things to look at and it changes fast, by the second. You feel as if you are making rapid headway, and your morale rises.

There may even be some instinctive hunter-gatherers preference for the protection of a complicated and close-by background compared to the exposure of a wide open space with its big, bland, unchanging backdrops, against which a distant figure may far more easily observed by a thousand enemies, near and far. In the back streets, the human animal that is the pedestrian is in his element. In the wide open spaces, the motor vehicles dominate, and maybe the pedestrian instinctively feels that he could be attacked at any moment. It must also mean something that a Big Open Space crowded with other humans, provided that it is not too crowded, is more pleasurable to walk through than a big empty one. Safety in numbers? The predators less likely to pick on you?

Those are just pop science guesses. What I do know is that walking through London is one of those good/bad nice/nasty interesting/boring things where there are surprisingly few half measures. A walk in London, for me, is either very dull and exhausting, or else so constantly diverting and comforting as to be no effort at all, and I could ink in an A-Z with the walks that are very nice in one colour, and the walks that are boring and nasty in another, with very few blank neither-nice-nor-nasty walks at all, but – note this – with constant switches from one to another. For further reading, see Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, where this whole thing of protected space and exposed space is gone into in depth. I believe that what people hate about "modern architecture" is not the vastness and horribleness of the towers. It is the vastness and horribleness of the gaps in between the towers that is so horrible. And even if the towers are beautiful, but if the gaps are big and horrible, that's bad. Old London was mostly Little Shop streets. More recent cities are Napoleon cities, where big beasts like armies, and later like the tanks of Tienenmen Square, and like the traffic everywhere, rule, and the individual pedestrian is dwarfed and – mentally if not physically – crushed.

So I got out at Clapham Junction and decided to catch a train to Victoria.

It was actually quite an easy decision.

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