Will Self: How traversing London has mapped the city across my heart

London is the greatest metropolis in the world — other cities may have more pace and more people, but none has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of urbanity for nigh on half a millennium quite like our own dear Smoke.

I have lived here most of my life — I was born in Charing Cross Hospital (now the cop shop opposite the station), grew up in North London and now live in Stockwell. This city has an anarchic, hallucinatory personality and I thrive on its energy and dynamism. Yet from time to time I have to let myself be exhaled by London. To do this, I walk right out. 

Over the years, my regular walks out of London (often with my 14-year-old son Luther) have become what most bind me to the city, helping me celebrate its sheer expansiveness, both physical and psychic. By walking for many miles across it you become absorbed into its glorious fabric, while — dare I say it — at the same time transcending its uglinesses and longueurs. 

You don’t know London until you’ve physically walked around it and out of it. Since the late 1990s, it’s been a way to deal with my issues with London and my issues with myself simultaneously. It helped occupy me after I gave up drugs, and I’ve seen how teaching my students at Brunel University, many of whom are new to the UK, about the London landscape helps them become more connected with a land they felt alienated from. Walking aids the mind in so many ways: it’s not for nothing that Nietzsche said, ‘I never trust an idea that didn’t come to me on a walk.’

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The first time I walked to the outskirts of London was 15 years ago on a trip to Heathrow Airport. No, I didn’t trudge along the hard shoulder of the A4 with my carry-on bag trundling behind; in fact, you can reach Heathrow from Stockwell doing little more than a third of the 18 miles on public roads — the rest consists of canal towpath, the Thames embankment and plenty of heath and parkland. Far from such a walk being boring, there’s a great variation in ambience, ever-changing vistas and the curious thrill of knowing that you’re a true explorer — as I was trudging to Heathrow it occurred to me that I was probably the first to undertake the journey on foot since the late 19th century. 

The first time I actually reached open country in a single day I walked from my house to Springfield Park in Upper Clapton, from where I joined the River Lea, the course of which led me all the way to Epping Forest. I vividly remember walking away from Epping Tube station at the end of Central Line towards the quaint market town of Chipping Ongar, where I was planning to stay the night. There was the distinctive hum and ozone smell from the Tube tracks, while the pigeons coo-burbled in the privet hedges. I’d already passed over the M25, but because Epping itself felt like London, I was still worried I wouldn’t make it. After all, as I said, I knew no one who’d ever performed this feat, so perhaps it was impossible? Maybe there was a strange sort of invisible force field that would repel me before I reached truly bucolic Essex? I pictured myself being hurled back by this, as a voice intoned: ‘Turn again, you witless dick — don’t you understand no true Cockney can ever walk off his manor…’

In fact, I crossed over the M11 by footbridge and stood there for a while watching the faces of the drivers as they streamed away from the city, the stress of their working days etched into their tense faces. The path ahead disappeared into twilight woodland and within minutes I felt as if the city of my birth had disappeared as well. It was an eerie moment — and I believe only possible because I’d left town on foot. It was because I’d experienced every inch of the way, registered it with nerve and sinew and muscle and mind, that I was now gifted this extraordinary sense of release — a feeling that persisted as I wended along the Essex Way the following day. The whole point about walking is that it returns you to the pre-industrial era, when most journeys were undertaken on foot and — relatively speaking — centres of population were far more remote. If you undertake a walking tour of the South East, you pass through mile after mile of countryside and seldom encounter another person — but if you drive across it, the Garden of England appears jammed-full of raging drivers, beeping and farting. 

Every year I walk out of London. On the face of it that seems a straightforward enough thing to do. I have functioning legs and I can read a map, so what’s the big deal? Well, besides myself and Luther, who’s accompanied me on these ex-urban treks for the past five years, I only know one other person who’s ever walked all the way out of this great city — the writer Nick Papadimitriou — from its centre, in a single day.

Actually, when you consider the logistics, the reasons for this become more obvious. The writer Cyril Connolly once remarked: ‘No city should be so large that someone can’t walk out of it in a morning.’ But London is so vast a city that you need to leave early on a summer morning and promenade until dusk in order to find yourself in greenish fields. So there’s this major obstacle — and then there’s the problem of the intolerable monotony of trudging along successive, increasingly suburban, streets — or so people think. In fact, the much vaunted open-ness of our great city is never more evident than when you plan a long walk across it.

I’ve walked out of London to the south and, after a long day wiggling along the River Wandle, ascended the North Downs to the south of Croydon. From the high point — known as the Norr Chalk Pinnacle — you have an astonishing view of the city, all the way from the white fence posts of the 

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford, to the Boeings buzzing in to land at Heathrow. And I’ve walked out of London to the west as well, beyond Heathrow, where I wended my way between the colossal reservoirs, feeling like a lost tribe of one Jew, for whom the waters have been municipally parted. And I’ve walked out of London to the northwest, mounting up to Stanmore’s suburban streets then declining to the Colne Valley and following it into the Chiltern Hills. 

In fact, I’ve now walked out of London in all cardinal and ordinal directions. It’s become, as you may have gathered, something of an obsession. We’ve all had the experience of being in a strange city and feeling utterly disoriented — and so powerless. My solution to this problem is always to walk across as much of the city as I can and in my experience a sense of enlightenment ensues. Perhaps that’s why I keep walking across and out of London; after all, native or incomer, lots of us feel disoriented and powerless in this mighty metropolis, but by continually measuring the city’s true extent, using my own body as the yardstick, I don’t just feel more at home in the brick canyons and concrete wastes — I own them. Try it for yourself. I truly feel that if all Londoners walked out of the city once a year, it would do more for our sense of civic pride than any number of mayoral or local governmental initiatives. What’s more, it wouldn’t cost the proverbial penny.

Illustrations by Anna Bu Kliewer


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