At the start of my hour long walk back to New Cross, in South East London, from the imposing Tower Bridge, my mind is full of stress and uncertainty. Money worries, flat hunting and a dozen or so other anxieties combine with the usual niggling voices of self doubt, and jangle around me like loose change. The cityscape surrounding me feels lifeless and disconnected. But then I spy Grange Walk, the turning before the main and presumably more direct Grange Road I had originally planned to follow. A row of terraced but mismatched, early Victorian houses peep out at me invitingly, suggesting a cosiness in contrast to the steel, glass and concrete of this area. I decide to change course and turn down to see what I find.
What transpires is a lovely, meandering ramble to my destination where, along the way, I discover a bizarre mid-twentieth century mural, depicting an intricate medieval scene, on the walls of a civic centre on the Old Kent Road and wander amongst delightful planted front gardens of an unassuming South Bermondsey housing estate.
On arrival in New Cross, the disquiet I set out with has evaporated. I feel alive and happily engaged with the world instead of the alienated ball of low frequency misery I had been at the start of my journey.
Recently my boyfriend and I spent a weekend in Lisbon. The simple act of walking down the street, of making our way from one neighbourhood to another, became a source of wonder. But so often we seem to reserve this mind set solely for mini breaks or sabbaticals. We marvel at the haunting atmosphere of ancient quarters in a foreign city, and are entranced at the way light reflects on a mountain stream while trekking in the Himalayas, but our everyday lives are often devoid of these moments. The terrifying financial burdens that come with living in London, the sense of it increasingly becoming a steel and glass playground for the super wealthy, can make us ordinary Londoners feel disenfranchised. The huge pressure to achieve and succeed, if not just survive, leaves little scope for moments of awe and genuine peace in our frantic minds.
So we march purposefully towards the tube station; we head down streets never wondering where that little side alley may lead. And I'm talking about myself here; I walked down Mare Street in Hackney to my studio every day for about six years before I bothered to stop and enter an ivy clad archway I'd passed every single day. I discovered a charming, very old churchyard that felt a million miles away from the city. Admittedly the next time I visited I inadvertently interrupted a drugs transaction, but that first time my discovery gave me a sense of adventure and wonder that sustained me for the whole day. And it was my secret.
An enriching walk in London doesn't need to be an epic eight mile Thames trek. Add 15 minutes to your journey to work and take a meandering route or brave the half hour journey from the pub instead of getting a taxi. At night, streetlights and trees create a striking shadow world on the ground beneath you. Incidentally lit tower block flats in a tower block create Bauhaus-like patterns. Studying the walls and surfaces on the way to the Post Office reveals patterns and textures which become a semi-abstract canvas.
While it's all very nice finding yourself surrounded by beauty and visual stimuli on your way to Sainsbury's, the effect of looking and experiencing the world in this way is far more profound. You are not a tangle of stress and aspirations passing through an indifferent and unforgiving stage set, but a part of this living, breathing and ever evolving environment, where opportunities for adventure and moments of beauty are part of your everyday existence. All it takes is to look around you, putting one foot in front of the other.
WAYS TO WALK IN LONDON: Hidden Places and New Perspectives by Alice Stevenson is published by SeptemberSuggest a correction