Walking in London (1912)

From Walking Essays by A.H. Sedgwick.
(Edward Arnold 1912)

Many of the observations in this book hold true today e.g. 'there are so many people in London that they do not notice each other. If the Londoner paid the slightest attention to his neighbour he would go mad in a fortnight..' Also the idea that there are walking 'lines' in London vaguely prefigures the tramps 'ley lines' conjured up in Iain Sinclair's 1975 work Lud Heat (and re-trod by Peter Ackroyd in Hawksmoor). Sedgwick talks of an 'innate craving for big lines' and a direct path  from Central London to the King's Road- 'the line by which the citizens of London went to Chelsea to eat buns...'

London walking is a quite distinct and peculiar thing, utterly unlike any other town-walking. It is a unique branch of walking in general and solitary walking in particular : for all the circumstances which make town-walking solitary apply ten-thousandfold in London. But if you accept this condition, and walk London alone, you will find a very curious thing, namely that in this biggest and most monstrous of all towns you approach most nearly to pure rusticity. The strictly physical conditions, dirt, noise, smell, constriction of outlook, multiplicity of people, are as bad or worse in London than other towns ; but in certain other points, by no means unimportant to a walker, the end of the series is like the beginning, the infinite is like the infinitesimal. What was possible on the South Downs, difficult in Cheltenham, and unthinkable in Liverpool, becomes possible again in London.

It all springs from one simple fact : there are so many people in London that they do not notice each other. If the Londoner paid the slightest attention to his neighbour he would go mad in a fortnight. It is physically impossible for him to notice every one he sees ; consequently, he gets into the habit of simply overlooking them, and as their esse is percipi, they become, for practical purposes, not there. A Londoner walking along a crowded street is really alone in the wilderness : the men are simply as trees walking.

The difference between walking along Oxford Street and along the Embankment is only the difference between walking through a copse where there are many trees or on a field track where there are few. From this two important consequences follow ; first, that in London you can wear what you please. No one will notice or criticise, and even if they did there are always a hundred people worse dressed than you, with dirtier boots, with more negligĂ© hats, with baggier trousers. You may, of course, meet some one you know ; but here again the abnormal size of London comes to your aid. If it is 5 to 1 on meeting a friend in Cheltenham, it is 50 to 1 against in London. Second, and even more important, is the fact that in London you can sing in the streets. The roar of the traffic will drown all but the strongest passages in the highest register: and even if this lulls for a moment nobody will notice. You can even conduct with your stick if the beat of your foot is not enough. Difficult orchestral passages with variations of colour can be safely attempted in London streets : even the difference between a trumpet and a horn (which involves making faces if it is done properly) can be represented without any one heeding you. 

Traversing thus the London streets, singing and in comfortable clothes, unheeding and unheeded by other people, the solitary walker can come near to, if he cannot attain, the proper mood of walking. It is true that a crowd may disturb his repose at times, and dodging the people and the traffic may break the rhythm of his stride : but the sixth sense which Londoners develop enables him to avoid most obstructions without thinking, and it is surprising, as a matter of fact, how rarely one's stride is broken in a London street. The rhythm of street walking can never be quite the same as the rhythm of country walking : there is always something hard and metallic in the contact of foot and paved surface. None the less, there is a rhythm, and it can do something towards pacifying the body, enlarging the mind, and beating the disordered discourse of intellect into the smooth series of contemplation. Here again the mere size of London comes to the solitary walker's aid. It is large enough to give him the feeling of direction, to feed his innate craving for big lines. True, in London as in other towns you have frequently to make a sharp turn, giving a violent wrench to your internal organ of orientation. But if your main line be a sufficiently big one, as it can be in London, it is possible to regard these turns as temporary irregularities, and merge them in a larger whole. For example, as you go from Charing Cross to Chelsea, you start with a piece of the Strand, turn a little to cut across the lower end of Trafalgar Square and out into the Mall, and then swing round to the left, to the right, again to the right and again to the left, before you resume the big line of the King's Road. But if you envisage the whole in a sufficiently large spirit, the little irregularity of Trafalgar Square and the four turns necessitated by the intrusion of Buckingham Palace need not trouble you ; they are mere modern excrescences on a line which must have existed before Buckingham Palace was built or Trafalgar fought, the line by which the citizens of London went to Chelsea to eat buns. 

By walking in this way along big lines it is possible to gain some real idea of London, the relations of its parts, and the characteristic of each. The bus or cab-rider cannot really understand London : by allowing himself to be carried he loses all grip of actuality. The underground traveller is even more benighted : to him London is an unintelligible congeries of districts linked by memories of the under world. He conceives Hampstead Heath as something near Hampstead station an awful perversion. But the walker realises Hampstead Heath in its relation to London ; he has approached it through the drab monochrome vistas of Camden Town (with the sudden leap into modernity, red brick, and green blinds at the lower end of the heath) or along the pompous and innocently self-satisfied High Street, or up the interminable sameness of Fitz John's Avenue. He knows Parliament Hill as the end of an hour's hard walk, from which he looks back over the way that he has come : he knows the cattle-trough as the first landmark in Alf Holliday's famous walk out of London to St. Albans, which drops him over the Spaniard's Road into a new world, with a high ridge between him and London, twists him deftly through Temple Fortune, takes him into Hendon the back way by the recreation ground, and speeds him from the foot of the hill across the thirteen fields traversed by the river Silk, where a man can stretch his legs and forget all urban things awhile until confronted by the imposing structure of the Hendon Union workhouse.

[Book came from Roy Turner Durrant. Modern British semi-abstract painter. He studied at Camberwell School of Art (1948-52) under John Minton and lived in Cambridge where he ran the Heffer Gallery (1963-1976). His work is in many collections including Imperial War Museum, Bradford City Art Gallery and Kettles Yard, Cambridge. A love of the East Anglian countryside is a recurring theme throughout his work.]

The mention of 'Alf Holliday's famous walk' probably refers to Over the Northern Heights : a Series of Rambles by Field-Path and Hedgerow through North Middlesex, Herts. , and Bucks / Carefully Described by Alf. Holliday

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